A year on from the signing of a confidence and supply agreement which saw 10 DUP MPs back Theresa May’s minority Conservative government, leader of the DUP Parliamentary Party Nigel Dodds speaks to David Whelan about their influence in Westminster, whether it has taken primacy over Stormont and his perspective on Brexit.
An experienced parliamentarian, first elected to Westminster in 2001, Dodds outlines that the dynamic of the party’s Westminster functions has changed somewhat since the signing of the confidence and supply agreement in 2017, with the Government now requiring DUP support on virtually any piece of legislation that it wants to pass through the House of Commons.
The formal mechanism for interaction between the Conservatives and the DUP is through a co-ordination committee made up of the Government and a trio of DUP privy councillors: Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson and Sammy Wilson.
However, as Dodds explains, interaction is not limited to those formal mechanisms. “On a day to day basis we have much more interaction with the Government across all departments in respect of their agenda.
“It’s a much more intense place for us now in terms of our involvement and we are involved in many more areas across government than we would previously have been. That’s the major difference.”
Dodds rejects the suggestion that the confidence and supply relationship has seen the DUP act more as lobbyists than the partnership a formal coalition would have offered.
“We are not in a coalition and so we are not in Government. In the areas of the confidence and supply agreement we are partners. The Government cannot, nor has it attempted to, ride roughshod over us.
“The Government depends on our vote, so it isn’t a case of us lobbying them,” he explains. “They must come to certain agreements with us in relation to legislation before it can proceed, particularly in the confidence and supply areas such as around Brexit, financial matters and counter-terrorism.
“Those are the critical areas where we engage with them in a lot of detail but then there will also be areas where we will try to reach agreement. Outside of those areas where the confidence and supply agreement applies then issues are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. There are areas where we will agree with them and areas where we won’t, so we try to come to sensible agreements where we can.”
It is for this reason, Dodds explains, the party did not seek a place on Theresa May’s cabinet. “We believed the best for Northern Ireland was to have a situation where in certain areas we could guarantee our voice would be heard and at the same time were free to vote against the Government where we deemed necessary. However, a key thing for us was to ensure that we didn’t have another early general election, which in our view meant the real possibility that Jeremy Corbyn might have become Prime Minister, something we believed would not have been good for Northern Ireland or the UK.
“We believe the outcome we did achieve has been good for Northern Ireland.”
The Deputy Leader describes discussions with the Government over the past year as being “extremely amicable” and “extremely positive”, asserting that his party has been robust in arguing their case for Northern Ireland where necessary and have successfully forced the Government to take onboard their views around key areas such as the cap on public sector pay, on childcare vouchers and on budgetary issues generally.
Other highlights have had a more national impact such as shaping the future of the agri-industry in the UK and ensuring sufficient farm support for farmers throughout the lifetime of the parliament, as well as ensuring the pensions triple lock remains in place and means-testing of winter payments will not occur.
He adds: “In terms of Northern Ireland, I think we have delivered. A year on from the general election Northern Ireland is at least £410 million better off in this year’s budget than it would have been had things remained the same. That money is going into health, education and services for Northern Ireland. These are all positive and we see those as to the benefit of everyone in society.”
“In the areas of the confidence and supply agreement we are partners. The Government cannot, nor has it attempted to, ride roughshod over us.”
When pressed on whether exerting influence on the Government has been made more difficult because of divisions within the cabinet, he says: “On budgetary issues and many of the issues I have outlined, no it hasn’t, government continues to work. Obviously when it comes to Brexit, the negotiations and government decision-making has taken longer as a result of different views in cabinet.”
Over the course of the year, with the restoration of Stormont not looking likely in the near future, some commentators have detected a shift of influence in the party and insinuated that the elevated position at Westminster might serve to undermine the leadership at Stormont, going as far as to suggest a potential leadership shift from Arlene Foster to one of the Westminster team.
Dodds is quick to echo the party’s emphatic rejection of such suggestions. He says: “We went through a similar situation of government suspension at Stormont between 2003 to 2007, when the suspension lasted a lot longer than is currently the case. There are no issues and I see it as somewhat fabricated.
“We are a devolutionist party, we remain committed to devolution and we need to work our way through the problems of getting Stormont restored. The emphasis is on getting devolution back and there is no issue on the leadership as far as that’s concerned.”
In the absence of Stormont, the DUP have voiced their belief that the necessary alternative to failure to restore devolution will be for decision-making powers to be returned to London. Recent focus on abortion legislation in Northern Ireland, following on from the referendum in the Republic, has put greater emphasis on the discussion about to what extent Westminster should and could exercise decision-making.
Asked for his analysis on the emergency Westminster debate brought about by Labour MP Stella Creasy, with the support of some Conservative MPs, calling for changes to the law in Northern Ireland, Dodds responds: “We come at this from the point of view that it is and has always been a devolved matter. Whatever people’s views are, it has to be for the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide.
“If Westminster decides that it wishes to legislate – and we don’t dispute its competence to do so, it is the sovereign parliament – then it must do so without cherry-picking which pieces of legislation it is going to implement. If you go down the road of fundamental change being imposed in Northern Ireland than that will mean the full panoply of direct rule.”
Turning to Brexit and speaking shortly after the publication of the UK’s backstop proposals and their subsequent rejection by Michel Barnier, Dodds says that Theresa May’s UK-wide proposal had been something the party was content with, avoiding a situation where Northern Ireland would operate differently from the rest of the UK.
He adds: “I think Michel Barnier’s response is somewhat predictable. The EU said in February that they wished to hive off Northern Ireland and create a border down the Irish Sea and they are sticking to that. However, there will come a point when he will have to accept what Theresa May and Labour’s Keir Starmer have stated, that no UK Prime Minister could accept what effectively would be the breakup of the UK constitutionally and the destruction of the UK single market.
“I would add that it would mean the eventual destruction of our economy, since over 60 per cent of our sales in Northern Ireland go to the Great Britain market. Our position is that we want to see a frictionless border with the Irish Republic; but you can’t then build a massive barrier down the Irish Sea which will actually cut us off from our most important market.”
Asked whether this meant that a no deal scenario would be more preferential than any that created an Irish Sea border, Dodds adds: “No, our position is the same as most sensible people. We believe that we need a free trade deal. We don’t want a crash out or a hard Brexit.
“We are a devolutionist party, we remain committed to devolution and we need to work our way through the problems of getting Stormont restored.”
“The trouble is that because of the process set up on the EU insistence on a withdrawal agreement before getting on to the future trade relationship, we are still talking about withdrawal and haven’t yet been able to discuss future trade. It is only in the context of the future trade relationship of the UK and the EU that Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland will be really sorted out. So, get on with it, that’s what I say.”
Dodds was speaking shortly after comments from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson were leaked and which appeared to suggest a lack of appreciation for the impact a hard border would have on the island of Ireland. About the border Johnson said: “It’s so small and there are so few firms that actually use that border regularly, it’s just beyond belief that we’re allowing the tail to wag the dog in this way. We’re allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly.”
However, Dodds believes the comments were born out of frustration about the slowness in the process: “What I think he was referring to, and I can’t speak for him, is the strong feeling in Westminster that the concentration on the border, particularly by the EU, is more to do with forcing the UK into a certain Brexit stance that it is about solving the problem.”
Describing the current situation at Stormont as a “limbo” Dodds advocates the implementation of decision-making to ensure that Northern Ireland doesn’t “grind to a halt”. Decisions being taken by a restored assembly is his preferred option but he admits the reality that a lot of “mistrust” still exists around the latest breakdown of talks in February.
Dodds believes that an “unprecedented level of leaking and spinning” which he attributes blame for to Sinn Féin, went against a basis for all previous negotiations, that confidentiality would be maintained.
He doesn’t accept the suggestion that their elevated Westminster position may have had an impact on their appetite to get back around the table at Stormont: “We wouldn’t have entered the negotiations in the first place if we just wanted to protect our position at Westminster. The fact of the matter is that we didn’t have a deal on the table that was sufficient, balanced or robust. It didn’t address our concerns about the potential of collapsing Stormont in the future. There was still work to be done and unfortunately the reaction afterwards has caused a lot of damage.”
Dodds was also speaking shortly after a lecture delivered by former party leader Peter Robinson at Queen’s University Belfast in which he suggested the holding of generational border polls could stabilise politics in Northern Ireland.
Outlining his belief that a current border poll would deliver an overwhelming majority to stay in the union, he continues: “I don’t subscribe to this view that a united Ireland is any closer but I do subscribe to the view that as unionists we need to ensure that Northern Ireland is a place where unionists of every hue, faith, colour and background feel comfortable.”
Concluding with his vision for the future, Dodds believes that the DUP’s role in Westminster in coming years will be critical and he wishes to see the party deliver for Northern Ireland.
“We have delivered quite a bit in the first year of the confidence and supply deal and we want to continue to do so. In terms of Northern Ireland we want to see the restoration of devolution. We believe that Northern Ireland has a massive opportunity in terms of those key growth sectors of the economy and in terms of its fantastic people.
“I’m optimistic about the future. We have some temporary difficulties but I believe we can get over them.”