David Cameron plays the Orange card

Opinion: Both Conservatives and Labour have form when it comes to deals with the DUP in exchange for Commons votes

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron attends a Q & A session at an engineering company as joins his Conservative Party's election campaign for the European elections, in Woodchester, southern England May 8, 2014. Britain votes in local and European elections on May 22.    REUTERS/Andrew Winning   (BRITAIN - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron attends a Q & A session at an engineering company as joins his Conservative Party's election campaign for the European elections, in Woodchester, southern England May 8, 2014. Britain votes in local and European elections on May 22. REUTERS/Andrew Winning (BRITAIN - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

Thu, May 15, 2014, 12:01

As Gerry Adams was being questioned about the murder of Jean McConville in the Antrim Serious Crime Suite on April 30th, David Cameron was hosting a drinks party for DUP MPs in the Downing Street garden (the DUP contingent was presumably on orange juice). The event was a relaxed affair. Cameron’s children scampered among the guests. Going on past experience, it is more than likely that the purpose was to ensure the support of the eight DUP MPs for a second term for Cameron if next year’s election produces another hung parliament.

East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson told the Belfast Telegraph his party was being “courted, tested and probed” not only by the Tories but also by Labour. “When you speak in the House of Commons you get spokesmen from the various parties coming up and saying, ‘That was a good speech, I’m glad you said that’ . . . It’s part of an attempt to strike up a friendly accord because we may be important in the future . . . That increases our influence.”

Both Conservatives and Labour have form when it comes to deals with the DUP in exchange for Commons votes. This became clear in June 2008 when Gordon Brown’s government introduced a Bill allowing suspects in “terrorist” cases to be detained for 42 days without charge.

Thirty-six Labour MPs announced an intention to defy the whip and oppose the measure. The nine DUP votes delivered Brown his majority (The bill was withdrawn four months later).

Pay-back came in October the same year on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. This allowed the introduction of amendments to the 1967 Abortion Act. Labour MP Emily Thornberry, backed by Labour members proposed the extension of the act to the North.

Pro-choice campaigners
However, to the dismay of pro-choice campaigners in the North, Ms Thornberry withdrew her amendment: summoned to the prime minister’s office, she was told she was “putting the peace process in danger”, that her proposal had a potential to “tear apart” the powersharing administration at Stormont. Given that both support for and opposition to the extension was spread across the communal divide, it was hard to see how the amendment could have triggered a breakdown of the Executive. Nevertheless, Brown was adamant the peace process was in jeopardy and Thornberry felt that she had no option but to comply.

DUP’s help
The analysis shared by seemingly all Westminster commentators and by MPs who have touched on the matter since was that the withdrawal was a quid pro quo for the DUP’s help in the 42-day debate. A Guardian editorial declared: “There have been some low moments in parliament over the last 11 years but few so low as today . . . High hopes have fallen victim to what looks like political expediency . . . An egregious example of cheap political advantage.” The government was “bowing to the Stormont Boys’ Club”.

Labour’s readiness to bargain to meet the concerns of the DUP had been vital to the establishment of the Stormont institutions in the first place. Then DUP leader the Rev Ian Paisley had been stridently opposed to powersharing with Sinn Féin until his conversion in late 2006. Two years earlier, in October 2004, Westminster had passed the Civil Partnership Act. Dr Paisley had asked, “Why is the Bill not going to be left until the Assembly is up and running again, so that the people of Northern Ireland can make this decision themselves?”

Deputy minister for equality Jacqui Smith replied, in effect, that all such decisions could be made at Stormont if only Dr Paisley would agree to share power and thus make restoration of the Assembly possible. (It is an indication of the difficulty many have in seeing Northern Ireland in any terms other than Orange versus Green that this aspect of the Paisley U-turn is rarely mentioned in analyses.)

The devolution of powers ensured that gay marriage law doesn’t operate in the North, that the NHS cannot fund women forced to travel to Britain for abortions, a ban on gay adoption and on sexually active gay men giving blood, etc.

The fact that Cameron could arrange a hail-fellow-well-met get-together with the DUP in his garden on the evening when he knew that the Sinn Féin leader would be under interrogation suggests his anxiety to secure DUP support to stay on as prime minister overrides other considerations about the North.

This doesn’t mean the timing of Adams’s arrest was designed to harm Sinn Féin at the polls. That is almost certainly not so.

It does mean that British political leaders are as ready as ever when it suits them to play the Orange card.

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