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Falling out between DUP and business has been a wonder

Electoral hit unlikely given North’s polarised politics

DUP leader Arlene Foster. “There has been much comment on the DUP forsaking its image as the party of business but that was always an affectation with little evidence of voter appeal.” Photograph: Tom Honan

The falling out between the DUP and Northern Ireland’s business community over the past week has been a wonder to behold and a genuinely novel development.

Even in the 1990s, when a similar collection of business groups came together to back the peace process, they professed to be neutral on the Belfast Agreement referendum and would never have dreamed of explicitly criticising the DUP’s opposition to the deal.

Business advocacy for peace was founded on a 1994 Confederation of British Industry (CBI) document that made clear the financial issues at stake were on a Brexit scale, while the violence in question was off the Brexit scale. Yet the CBI and the six other organisations that joined this campaign spent half a decade tiptoeing around what was then the junior party of unionism in case they were accused of that most dreaded of northern offences – being ‘too political’.

By contrast, it took only days from the publication of last week’s draft withdrawal agreement for the DUP and the business community to progress from mutual disagreement to open hostility and even ridicule – and the escalation continues, with 40 Northern business leaders meeting the prime minister Theresa May in Downing Street today to support her Brexit deal.

The DUP is seen as cosy with commercial interests on planning and development

The question is: what difference will it make? The DUP clearly has no intention of shifting its position on what it has portrayed as a battle for the union. An electoral hit looks unlikely when the DUP and Sinn Féin have created a political environment where every crisis simply ratchets up each other’s support – there is scant reason to believe the next trip to polls will be any different.

Affectation

There has been much comment on the DUP forsaking its image as the party of business but that was always an affectation with little evidence of voter appeal. The origins of this image lie, pathetically, in former leader Peter Robinson’s time running a suburban Belfast council, where he took great pride in setting the lowest local taxes in Northern Ireland. The party’s pro-business posture remains as petty and shallow as that. The DUP championed the plan to devolve and cut corporation tax but so did every other Stormont Executive party, thanks to yet another carefully neutral campaign by the business sector, spanning over a decade.

"The DUP was usually impressed enough by boardroom courtesy calls to go with the flow. It stands accused of being more interested in exploiting insider knowledge for the tawdry benefit of friends of family." File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The DUP is seen as cosy with commercial interests on planning and development but that owes less to free-market philosophy than to goings-on around the parish pump. Suspicions that business was cosy with the DUP were fostered by Northern Ireland’s unique Troubles-era donor secrecy laws. When those laws were relaxed last year they revealed the DUP, like every other party in the North, receives effectively no private donations. It survives on public funding.

The inquiry into the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scandal completes the picture of the DUP’s relationship with business. Large firms focused their lobbying efforts on bamboozling the civil service – a practice that evolved during decades of direct rule. Officials then placed reports in front of ministers to skim through and sign. The DUP was usually impressed enough by boardroom courtesy calls to go with the flow. It stands accused of being more interested in exploiting insider knowledge for the tawdry benefit of friends of family.

The business community’s new activism has the quality of urgent, organic sincerity. It marks a real change

Among the business groups and major employers now at war with the DUP over Brexit is the Ulster Farmers’ Union. Its stance has attracted most notice because it is seen as close to the DUP. A former UFU staff member was DUP leader Arlene Foster’s special adviser when RHI was set up and she told the inquiry her party would “advocate” for the group. The UFU was neutral on the EU referendum but this was viewed as de facto support for Leave, which it later said half its members had backed.

Rubicon crossed

In truth this makes the UFU the least notable of the DUP’s business opponents because it was ‘political’ already and has merely changed its mind. The other groups have crossed the Rubicon, abandoning the head-down culture of the Troubles to challenge a party directly.

Controlled attempts to build this type of normal political engagement were part of the Belfast Agreement. The business community was given seven of the 60 seats on the consultative Civic Forum. But the forum was an anodyne talking shop and the DUP and Sinn Féin scrapped it in 2007. A more recent and revealing comparison might be the two letters this year from nationalist civic leaders, protesting at Brexit and the Stormont deadlock. These were viewed as a furtive republican stunt, however, so made no impression.

The business community’s new activism has the quality of urgent, organic sincerity. It marks a real change – from ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ to at long last saying something. But even if this change is permanent and its example spreads, the effects will be subtle and take years to become apparent.