The recent deal between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in the UK throws into relief the on-going debate on a variety of social issues most of us in Western Europe hold for granted, notably abortion rights and the recognition of same-sex marriage. Paradoxically, the DUP’s stance on these issues appears to be more aligned with the socially conservative positions traditionally defended by the Republic of Ireland—not with the liberal politics of Britain.
The snap General Election, held in the UK on 8th June 2017, yielded a surprising result: contrary to widespread predictions, the Conservatives failed to obtain a parliamentary majority, and, with only 318 seats, were forced to strike a deal with another party in order to remain in government. After their 2010 coalition with the Liberal Democrats garnered much criticism, this time the Conservatives chose an alliance with the infamous DUP —the largest party in Northern Ireland, and the fifth largest party in Westminster. However, the social stakes of the DUP deal, signed on 26th June, are profoundly different. The Conservatives have agreed to fund the DUP £1bn in order to prop up their majority in Westminster, but the social positions of the DUP are deeply anti-liberal.
THE FOUNDING PRINCIPLES OF ULSTER UNIONISM: TRACING THE POLITICAL ORIGINS OF THE DUP
The DUP was founded in 1971 by the Protestant Unionist reverend Ian Paisley, as a result of Ulster Unionism: the desire of a large Northern Irish community to preserve strong ties with Britain through a political union. During the Troubles—the riots, terrorism and civil unrest in Northern Ireland between Irish nationalists such as the IRA, and Ulster unionists – the DUP opposed attempts to resolve conflict which would involve sharing power with republicans, ultimately campaigning against various attempts at reaching the peace with the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, or the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
Historically, the Ulster Unionists relied on the British to provide the weighting that would influence distribution of power in Northern Ireland. Since the Conservatives now rely on the DUP in order to form a parliamentary majority, this has inevitably revived the friction long characteristic of the Northern Irish political landscape. Since the announcement of the coalition, Sinn Féin—the left-wing Irish republican political party active in Northern Ireland—has denounced the coalition as a disruption to the Good Friday Agreement, as it provides unilateral financial support and thus political weighting to the DUP in what remains a delicate political situation.
DUP SOCIAL CONSERVATISM: OPPOSITION TO SAME-SEX MARRIAGE…
Interesting in this configuration, however, is the vast discrepancy between the DUP’s socially conservative stance, and the more liberal leanings of British politics which they unreservedly align with. The DUP’s policies are indeed constructed on Protestant fundamentalism, meaning it opposes same-sex marriage. In England, Scotland and Wales, same-sex marriage has been legally recognised since 2014, making Northern Ireland the only remaining part of the UK where same-sex marriage is not legal.
Legislation to recognise same-sex marriage has been debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly five times since 2012: in April 2015, the motion for recognition was introduced by Sinn Féin and was defeated by a majority of 49 votes to 47, with all DUP members voting against it. In another vote in November 2015, the motion received 53 votes in favour and 51 votes against: for the first time same-sex marriage received majority support in the Assembly. Following this vote, however, the DUP tabled a ‘petition of concern’—a petition which, provided enough members from a given community agree, allows this community to exercise a veto over the Assembly’s decision (the purpose of the petition of concern is to protect each community from legislation that would favour the other community). As a result, the motion was prevented from having any legal effect.
… AND TO ABORTION RIGHTS
Similarly, the DUP has fought hard to halt an extension of abortion rights to Northern Ireland. Campaigners say their actions have forced thousands of women to rely on dangerous abortion pills bought online, or travel elsewhere for terminations—Northern Irish women are the only citizens of the United Kingdom who must pay up to £900 for an abortion carried out in Britain and who are not covered by the NHS, despite being UK taxpayers. Recently, the Welsh and Scottish governments proclaimed that they would offer free abortions to Northern Irish women, after the DUP member Ian Paisley Jr. refused to compromise its stance on abortion. In England, Wales and Scotland, abortion has been legal on a wide number of grounds since the Abortion Act of 1967, and can be carried out up to 20 weeks (five months) into the pregnancy—one of the longest terms along with the Netherlands, and significantly longer than the French term of 12 weeks (approximately three months).
At first glance, therefore, the DUP’s social conservatism seems less in tune with British liberalism in social policy, than with the Christian fundamentalism notoriously at the root of various social positions in the Republic of Ireland. In fact, whereas the DUP reiterates the age old opposition to its Catholic republican neighbours, its Christian fundamentalism strongly resembles the traditional Irish reticence towards abortion (and, more traditionally, contraception).
The DUP’s social conservatism seems less in tune with British liberalism in social policy, than with the Christian fundamentalism notoriously at the root of various social positions in the Republic of Ireland.
THE DUP’S SOCIAL CONSERVATISM CONTRA THE TORIES’ LIBERALISM
Historically, British conservatism was similarly tied to Christian morals. However, as the neoliberalism of the post-war era developed, the Right became far more liberal in their social policy. This is not to say that the Conservatives are champions of social policy; rather, it means that conservatism in post-neoliberal Britain has shifted its focus from a constraint of individual reproductive and sexual rights, to a more blatantly economic liberalism. In this respect, therefore, the DUP’s socially conservative policies have less to do with the Conservatives’ acceptance of certain liberal social stances, and more to do with the Christian fundamentalism of the Republic of Ireland. Or indeed of their Northern Irish opponents: Sinn Fein remains opposed to the legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, and several members of parliament in the Republic of Ireland continue to oppose abortion unless it occurs as the result of a medical intervention performed to save the life of the mother.
In reality, the social dogmas of Catholic fundamentalism in the Republic of Ireland are also increasingly transiting towards liberalism. Recently, Leo Varadkar’s victory in his party’s leadership contest (which took place after outgoing Prime Minister Enda Kenny announced his resignation) in May 2017, indicated a strong turn away from social conservatism. Varadkar is the son of an Indian immigrant who came out as gay in 2015. He will become the next Irish prime minister, after being voted leader of Fine Gael, a liberal-conservative and Christian democratic party and also the country’s main governing party. This marked another step forward towards equality, particularly following the referendum on 22 May 2015 amending the Constitution of Ireland to provide that marriage is recognised irrespective of the sex of the partners.
Ultimately, therefore, the DUP is seemingly clinging to the illusory remnants of British social conservatism, although their social policies resemble those of their opponents Sinn Féin, or of Irish republican politics—mainly on the question of abortion. It remains to be seen, therefore, how the financial and political support of the DUP by Westminster will influence the developments of social policy in Northern Ireland, particularly in light of the evergrowing youth and protest movements calling for a more liberal, progressive attitude towards same-sex marriage and abortion rights.