Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party will remain in power in Britain, following its disastrous election result earlier this month. May’s position, however, is severely weakened, and she has an unexpected and controversial new partner to deal with.
On Monday, the Tories, who were left nine seats short of a majority in parliament by the election, announced a partnership deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, which controls 10 seats. Rather than a coalition government, in which the smaller party would get positions in May’s cabinet, the deal is a loose “confidence and supply” arrangement under which the DUP has agreed to support the Conservatives on key votes allowing them to stay in power. In this case, the DUP has agreed to support May on legislation related to Britain’s negotiations on leaving the European Union. In exchange for the DUP’s support, May agreed to an additional $1.3 billion in funding for Northern Ireland.
So what is the DUP? It’s Northern Ireland’s main Protestant, unionist party, meaning that it favors maintaining strong ties to the United Kingdom. While it has virtually no support outside Northern Ireland, where it’s narrowly the largest party, it does compete for seats in the U.K. Parliament, where it would normally have relatively little influence. While it has moderated its positions since the days when it was led by founder, Protestant activist, and hard-line anti-Catholic preacher Ian Paisley, it’s still a controversial partner for the prime minister.
For one thing, the DUP is very socially conservative by the standards of British politics. It opposes both abortion and same-sex marriage and its lawmakers have made some very homophobic remarks in recent years. Northern Ireland is the only country in the United Kingdom where same-sex marriage is illegal and abortion is highly restricted. The new arrangement is unlikely to have an impact on those policies on the British mainland, but the Conservative-DUP partnership is still a disappointment for the British LGBTQ rights movement: The Tories have become much more liberal on gay rights in recent years, and it was David Cameron’s Tory government that introduced marriage equality.
It’s also unclear what impact the deal will have on the fragile peace process in Northern Ireland. The DUP’s main rival—the Catholic, Irish nationalist Sinn Fein—is hoping that in a post-Brexit world, with so much else up for grabs, it might now be possible to revisit the issue of Northern Ireland leaving the United Kingdom to become part of the Republic of Ireland. As part of the deal, May’s government has given the DUP assurances that it believes that “Northern Ireland’s future is best served within a stronger United Kingdom” and that it would oppose changes to that agreement. This probably means no referendum on Irish unity for the time being. Sinn Fein is also now arguing that the British government can no longer be a neutral arbiter in Northern Ireland’s contentious power-sharing talks, given the ruling party’s partnership with their rival.
Outside of Northern Ireland, the big question about the deal is what it will mean for Brexit negotiations. The DUP supports Brexit, but that support probably has limits. Though the DUP’s Protestant base skews Euroskeptic, Northern Ireland as a whole voted “remain” in last summer’s referendum—not surprising given its close links to the Republic of Ireland. Even with their loyalties to London, economic realities on the island mean that the DUP is likely to oppose a Brexit scenario that saw a complete loss of access to European markets or—the most dramatic scenario—the resumption of border controls between the republic and Northern Ireland.
In her public statements, May has indicated she favors a “hard Brexit” scenario, prioritizing immigration controls and rolling back EU regulations over maintaining ties to European markets. She has stated that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” meaning that she’s open to a complete break with the EU without a partnership agreement to replace it. After this month’s election—a vote that she misguidedly called in order to strengthen her position in negotiations—and this resulting new partnership, that hard line has become a lot less tenable