What do you make of the DUP? – Continuing reflections on a Christian Response to the General Election

The General Election result is still making waves. One result of the hung parliament is that Theresa May is seeking some kind of arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party to try and continue to govern. Fascinatingly, quite a lot of well-informed people have admitted that they didn’t know who the DUP were and had to google them.  The news coverage has been generally unfavourable portraying them as bigots and odd-balls.

So, in a moment I want to make a couple of comments from a Christian perspective but a little bit of background might be helpful.

  1. Why is a deal with the DUP being looked at?

It is worth noting that anyone who wants to form a government in this parliament will have to deal with the DUP in some way. Whether or not that meant that a formal deal was necessary or wise is perhaps a bigger question. However, a Labour led government would also need their votes. This is because the Conservatives are by a large margin the biggest party, however they are 8 seats short of an overall majority.  A coalition including Labour, the SNP, Lib Dems, Greens and one independent MP would still only have 315 seats and could be outvoted by the Conservatives.   Currently the Sinn Fein MPs don’t take their seats but if they did, there would equally be questions about relying on their votes and Jeremy Corbyn still wouldn’t have a majority. So, the DUP find themselves holding the balance of power.

  1. What is Confidence and Supply?

When a party cannot reach a majority, it has three options.

  1. It could form a coalition with other parties. Those parties become part of the government and sit with the Government MPs. Usually they would be offered cabinet posts. This is the arrangement David Cameron made with Nick Clegg in 2010.  The risk with this is that the parties have to agree a legislative programme together and often one party becomes toxically identified with its opponents’ unpopular ideas (e.g. Tuition fees). This arrangement does offer the most stability.
  2. Sometimes a party rules with a minority government. John Major did this for the last few years of the 1992-1997 government when by-elections took away his small majority. The SNP have been very successful at this in Scotland. It means that you put forward your ideas and dare your opponents to vote you down. Every vote is on a knife edge as you seek support from others. However, it also means you can build different coalitions for different measures. The Lib Dems may support some things, the DUP others. You may even find Conservatives and Labour MPS agreeing on some measures.
  3. Confidence and Supply is a kind of half-way house to give a little bit more stability. Some votes are treated as confidence motions (not just a strict “No-confidence” motion). For example, a government that cannot pass the Queen’s Speech would have to resign.  The other party agrees to vote with you on those matters but may vote against you on normal legislation. Supply refers to tax and spending measures. The two parties agree to vote together in favour of the budget.

 

  1. Who are the DUP?

In Northern Ireland, the biggest political question for well over a century has been whether the province belongs with the UK or with the Republic of Ireland. Unionists, often closely associated with Protestant Christianity believe they belong in the UK whereas Nationalists want to  a United Ireland -traditionally their support comes from Irish Catholics.

Historically the two views were represented by the Ulster Unionist Party and the SLDP (not to be confused with the Liberal Democrats). Sinn Fein was the political face of the IRA.  The DUP were founded by Ian Paisley and a primarily a working class, protestant movement with strong links to Paisley’s church, The Free Presbyterians.  Like Sinn Fein, they were minor players until fairly recently. Following the setting up of power sharing, support for both of the major parties collapsed so that the DUP and Sinn Fein are now the largest parties. Ian Paisley surprised everyone when he agreed to go into a power sharing administration with Sinn Fein.

  1. What’s the controversy?

The controversy can be identified as following

  1. As Protestant Christians, the DUP is against same sex marriage and abortion. A number of members have also expressed support for the teaching of 6 days creation in schools.
  2. As well as the IRA, there are a number of “loyalist” paramilitary groups. Several of these endorsed DUP candidates in the election. The DUP are also seen as  having a questionable history in terms of its relationship to some of these groups and attempts to form militias. It’s worth noting that the DUP have never endorsed terrorism and have distanced themselves from the militias. See Stephen Kneale’s article here which goes into ore detail and deals with the terrorism question.
  3. There is probably also a little bit of a mood/tone to this. Often there’s an emotional sense around an election when a party appears to have won through but falls short. Movement is with them.  The Government that lost its majority may technically have the constitutional right to try and form a government but it looks to the public like they are clinging on to power (this was Gordon Brown’s problem in 2010).

It’s probably worth noting that less attention has been given to the fact that whilst socially conservative, the DUP are not necessarily in agreement with the Conservatives on economic matters and are likely to want to protect things like the Triple Lock on Pensions, winter fuel payments etc. Also, whilst they supported Brexit, they may well be more in line with a softer Brexit position as a hard border with the Republic would not be good for Northern Ireland.

What is a Christian Response?

I want to make three points here.

  1. Here we have politicians who support Christian teaching on the right to life of an unborn baby. It is a shame that our media is whipping up hatred against those who want to protect the vulnerable.  Also, just as Tim Farron was hounded until he fell into line with the liberal secular agenda on same-sex marriage, it is no surprise to see these politicians being hounded for what they believe. Christians should be ready to speak up in support for those who hold to Biblical views on ethics.
  2. This does not mean that the DUP will be helpful to a Christian position. We may be concerned that they are overtly identified with a particularly unpleasant, sectarian period in our history.  We can also see here the huge danger of identifying Christians with a particular political creed. Indeed, whilst I understand that on a personal level, DUP MPs have often had a good reputation for representing all of their constituents, Catholic and Protestant, the identification of faith with sectarian politics has made it hard for evangelists and church planters. Many today are working hard to reach across the sectarian divide with the good news about Jesus. For that reason, we may still conclude that the current situation is unhealthy for our country.
  3. Having said all that, I remain convinced that God is sovereign. It does not mean that God has put in place a Christian government, it does not mean that we are guaranteed stability. We may have to go through tough times ahead still. But whether we see stability, a successful Brexit etc or more division, chaos and upheaval, God will be at work through those things for our eternal good and his glory.
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