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Britain’s Election: What the D.U.P. Is, and What It Wants

On Saturday, Mrs. May’s office said it could “confirm that the Democratic Unionist Party have agreed to the principles of an outline agreement to support the Conservative government.”

The D.U.P. later said, however, that talks were continuing, and Downing Street clarified its earlier statement to say that the details of any deal had yet to be finalized.

An agreement could put the D.U.P., led by Arlene Foster, 46, in the co-pilot’s seat for Mrs. May’s negotiations to take Britain out of the European Union, a process known as Brexit. So as the world strives to make sense of the election and its implications for Europe and beyond, the tiny D.U.P. has improbably become a factor in global geopolitics.

Arlene Foster: DUP will look to bring stability to UK Video by Guardian Wires

Robin Wilson, a commentator on Northern Ireland and European affairs, has a stark vision of the D.U.P. as bigoted, xenophobic, homophobic, isolationist and corrupt.

“Their idea of what Britain is today is so completely out of kilter with modern multicultural Britain and the secular character that it has today,” he said. “They believe that most of the modern world is morally decrepit and degenerate, whether it’s abortion or gay marriage or even just trying to form any kind of relationship with Catholics. They find these things very difficult.”

Origins of the Party

The Democratic Unionist Party was founded in 1971 as a radical, hard-line Protestant political faction in the Troubles, the 30-year-long sectarian conflict that began in 1968. The conflict was mainly fought between Catholics who wanted a republic that encompassed all of Ireland and Protestants determined to keep Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, along with Scotland, England and Wales.

At least 3,532 people, most of them civilians, lost their lives to paramilitary killings and terrorist bombings, with the violence at times spilling over into England and the Republic of Ireland.

The party’s founder was Ian Paisley, a self-made evangelical preacher whose virulently sectarian speeches, and sometimes violent demonstrations, helped stoke interfaith tensions in the early years of the Troubles.

Class and Religion

Yet for all Mr. Paisley’s anti-Catholic rhetoric (which moderated later in his life), the religious conflict that truly defined the birth, growth and eventual triumph of his movement was not the struggle between Protestant and Catholic, but the bitter local rift between rival Protestant traditions.

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The patrician Ulster Unionist party, which ruled Northern Ireland after its creation in 1922, was dominated by wealthier, gentrified members of the Church of Ireland, the local branch of the Anglican Communion. Mr. Paisley’s supporters came from dissenter stock: Presbyterians, Methodists and evangelical Protestants whose British ancestors colonized Catholic Ireland during the 17th-century wars of religion.

His followers were uncompromisingly hostile to Catholicism and liberalism, and resentful of the Church of Ireland’s ruling class, which had discriminated against their dissenter ancestors, yet they were fervently loyal to the military myths of the fading British Empire. These rank-and-file Protestants became increasingly distant from the more moderate Ulster Unionists and from the British government, which sought compromise among all factions.

In 1971, Mr. Paisley, who had already broken with mainstream Presbyterians to found his own fundamentalist and evangelical Free Presbyterian Church, stepped in to fill the void. (He died in 2014.)

Years later, the D.U.P. proved to be the main beneficiary of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which ended the Troubles. The deal stipulated that the largest Protestant and Catholic parties should jointly share power in Northern Ireland. But it soon became apparent that this would push voters from both sides to the political extremes, for fear of losing local influence to religious rivals.

The process appeared to reach its completion last week, when the Democratic Unionists took the last Westminster seats held by the rival Ulster Unionists. (Sinn Fein, the political wing of the disbanded Irish Republican Army, finished off the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party.)

For some, this was a poor outcome to a quarter-century of building peace in Northern Ireland.

“I think it’s a disaster for Ireland in that we are now back in the old sectarian swamp in the north, with one party effectively representing Protestants and another representing Catholics, and nothing moderate or nonsectarian in between,” said Andy Pollak, a former director of the Center for Cross Border Studies.

Others take a more sanguine view of the party. Paul Bew, an emeritus professor of history at Queens University Belfast, said many senior D.U.P. members and party cadres, including their leader, were Church of Ireland members who once belonged to the Ulster Unionists. For Protestants who want to work in politics in Northern Ireland, he says, the D.U.P. is now the pragmatic choice of party.

“They are not Attila the Hun,” he said. “They’ve been doing deals with Sinn Fein for 10 years now. Some people who are not paying attention think they are as they were 30 years ago. I’m not saying they are now liberals, but they’ve come a long way since then.”

Gay Marriage and Abortion

The D.U.P. has vetoed attempts to bring same-sex marriage legislation into effect in Northern Ireland since a referendum in the Republic of Ireland legalized gay marriage in 2015.

A similar law was passed in Westminster in 2013, but the D.U.P. blocked it in Northern Ireland. The party has also blocked attempts to extend Westminster’s 1967 Abortion Act — which legalized abortion in the rest of the United Kingdom — to Northern Ireland.

The D.U.P.’s Goals

Although the D.U.P. supported Brexit in last year’s referendum, few Irish observers, north or south, think the D.U.P. really wants a “hard Brexit” — a total separation from European markets and customs unions.

This would almost certainly require the reintroduction of border controls between northern and southern Ireland, damaging their economies and perhaps rekindling violence.

Beyond that, the price that the D.U.P. would demand for supporting a new British government remained a matter of conjecture.

“They don’t really need anything,” Professor Bew said. “A bit more investment, maybe.”

He added, “Northern Ireland gets 10 billion pounds a year from the U.K. Exchequer, and that needs to continue. Everything else is peanuts.”

Source: NYT > World

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