Forming govt with British Conservatives: DUP leader Arlene Foster gives little away

DUP leader Arlene Foster made it clear that no deal has been reached between her and British Prime Minister Theresa May.
DUP leader Arlene Foster made it clear that no deal has been reached between her and British Prime Minister Theresa May. PHOTO: REUTERS

DUBLIN (BLOOMBERG) - Mrs Arlene Foster may yet have a greater say than Theresa May over what Brexit looks like.

The leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) holds the balance of power in the Britain's new Parliament, with its 10 seats helping Mrs May's Tories achieve the parliamentary majority they failed to secure in Thursday's (June 8) general election.

"Our two parties have enjoyed a strong relationship over many years, and this gives me the confidence to believe that we will be able to work together in the interests of the whole United Kingdom," Mrs May told reporters outside her Downing Street residence in London Friday.

Mrs Foster gave little away as to the nature of that working relationship when she spoke to reporters in Belfast shortly afterwards. But she made clear no deal has yet been reached.

"The prime minister has spoken with me this morning and we will enter discussions with the Conservatives to explore how it may be possible to bring stability to our nation at this time of great challenge," Mrs Foster said in a brief statement. She took no questions.

The difficulty for Mrs May may be delivering exactly what Mrs Foster wants. While the DUP - the largest of the pro-UK, traditionally Protestant parties - backed Brexit, it also wants a "frictionless border" with the Irish Republic. That could prove difficult should Britain exit the customs union, as Mrs May plans. Northern Ireland remained part of Britain when the rest of Ireland gained independence from Britain in 1922.

The DUP "would be quite happy with a hard Brexit other than the reintroduction of a hard border", according to University of Liverpool professor Jonathan Tonge , the co- author of a 2014 book on the DUP. "It's quite contradictory."

About 30 per cent of Northern Ireland's exports go south, and in last year's referendum, 56 per cent of the region's voters opposed Brexit.

Last month, Mrs Foster said any increased restrictions on movement between Northern Ireland and mainland UK following Brexit are "a red line". In the DUP's manifesto, it said it wants to keep the common travel area between the UK and Ireland, and reach a comprehensive free trade agreement and customs agreement with the EU, without giving any more details.

Still, Mrs Foster has used some tough rhetoric, branding opponents of leaving the EU as "remoaners", suggesting a hard-line approach to the talks.

"While the DUP supported the 'leave' campaign, it is hard to envisage a scenario where a Northern Irish party would support the return of a hard border," said Mr Ryan McGrath, an analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald LP in Dublin.

Key to the relationship may be how much cash the DUP can persuade the Conservatives to cough up.

"They want money first of all for issues like infrastructure in Northern Ireland," said Prof Tonge.

The party also wants more defence spending, an increase in the minimum wage, reductions to household energy bills and the maintenance of the "triple lock" ensuring increases in pensions that Mrs May abandoned before the election, according to its manifesto.

The DUP will also want legacy issues from the paramilitary conflict in Northern Ireland, like the possible prosecution of British soldiers for actions during the Troubles, left aside, and to maintain vetoes on introducing gay marriage and looser abortion laws to the province, Mr Tonge said.

It's on those social issues that the DUP may be seen in London as an uncomfortable partner for the Conservatives, with stances that are odds with the more liberal views prevalent in the rest of the UK. Abortion was legalised in mainland Britain in 1967, but is subject to much stricter criteria in Northern Ireland. Some prominent DUP members have been outspoken in their condemnation of homosexuality, and in the 1970s the party championed a "Save Ulster From Sodomy" campaign.

On the border, though, "there's a lot of common ground", Prof Tonge said.

"They all want minimum disruption. What the DUP doesn't want is special status for Northern Ireland because that could be seen as somehow weakening the union."