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28 June 2017

This DUP deal turns the tables on Gerry Adams

While the much-vilified Orangemen have played a good hand, Sinn Feinís Westminster boycott looks ever more foolish

Ask “Who are the DUP?” and you’ll get an assortment of ill-founded insults: dinosaurs, thugs, homophobes, creationists, racists, Orange bigots, anti-women’s rights, climate-change deniers, and — as we say in Ireland — whatever you’re having yourself. Vicious criticism that would never be made of Muslims, who share many of these views, can safely be levelled at people who are white and Christian.

Sir John Major and other yesterday’s men such as the former Northern Ireland secretaries Peter Hain and Shaun Woodward have formed a chorus line to Gerry Adams’s threat that any deal between the Tories and the DUP would put peace in the province 
at risk.

Could we just get some sense of perspective? Like many people in Northern Ireland the DUP went through decades of hell, but when they no longer feared being shot or blown up they began slowly but steadily to change.

Between 1971, when the Rev Ian Paisley founded it, and 2008, when he was pushed out, the DUP were notorious for intransigence and sectarianism. Paisley certainly deserves much credit for provoking republican violence from the late-1960s until, in 2006, it suited him to do a deal that made him first minister of Northern Ireland with Martin McGuinness, who had supervised mass murder at the helm of the IRA, as his deputy. Before that, Paisley systematically destroyed his moderate Unionist rivals, culminating in his biggest trophy, David Trimble, a man of vision and courage who sacrificed himself and his Ulster Unionist Party to bring about the Good Friday Agreement.

At the same time, the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, took a wrecking ball to the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which had always opposed political violence. It was Trimble’s dream that mainland political parties would stand for election in Northern Ireland and give voters a real alternative to sectarianism, but though the Conservatives did, the Labour Party to this day refuses on the spurious grounds that the nationalist SDLP is its sister party.

Since 2015 Arlene Foster has been steadily liberalising the DUP. Mrs Foster is an Anglican and a lawyer who, like many of her colleagues, was never in the Orange Order, and who has Catholic and gay friends and even drinks alcohol. Her party’s social attitudes chime with many on the Tory right (and bear in mind as the left howl about the DUP’s opposition to abortion that the SDLP’s policy is exactly the same).

Intensely patriotic, pro-monarchy and seeing their place in the United Kingdom as key to their survival, the DUP are suspicious of the EU, where they have one MEP and Sinn Fein four. Sinn Fein, who until a couple of years ago were ferociously anti-EU, make their presence felt in Brussels and did a U-turn to oppose Brexit, which was embraced by many Unionists who care about sovereignty.

Although they’re still run by Mr Adams and a cabal of 60-something veterans of what they call “the conflict”, the brilliant propagandists of Sinn Fein have repackaged themselves as “progressives” and talk incessantly about human rights for all. Mr Adams is rarely seen without photogenic young women who faithfully parrot the party line. While attacking Unionists as backward and bigoted, Sinn Fein wind them up by holding ceremonies honouring dead bombers and gunmen who they claim were fighting the forces of evil for the sake of equality.

Trying to ride two horses in Ireland is always tricky for Sinn Fein, who in the Republic are in competition with the left and who were therefore embarrassed by accusations of having imposed austerity when they and the DUP ran the Northern Ireland executive. So in January, when Mr McGuinness was dying, he brought down the executive on the pretext of a financial scandal that happened on Mrs Foster’s watch. At the subsequent Stormont election, the party made gains at the Unionists’ expense.

But Theresa May’s snap poll has turned all that on its head. By making the DUP kingmakers it has exposed the folly of Sinn Fein’s longstanding refusal to take their seats at Westminster. During the campaign, as other parties criticised Sinn Fein’s obduracy on the matter, Mr Adams — president of Sinn Fein since 1983, leader of the party in the Irish parliament, and one-time Westminster MP himself — insisted loftily that abstention was an immutable principle and that, anyway, Northern Ireland MPs were too few to have any leverage on the UK government.

Though he has been railing against the £1 billion deal signed between the Tories and the DUP on Monday, the notion that it would undermine the Good Friday Agreement has little credibility. Indeed, now that the DUP has secured a big bag of money which they insist is for all the people of Northern Ireland, reviving an executive where Sinn Fein could have some say over its expenditure suddenly seems very attractive.

The DUP has played a lucky hand well and deserves a fair wind, especially from those who fear a government led by Mr Adams’s good friends, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. There are many worse people than Orangemen, and IRA supporters are high on the list.

Ruth Dudley Edwards


© Ruth Dudley Edwards