DUP holds Tories to ransom over assembly

Posted By: January 20, 2018

Sam Coates and  Patrick Maguire. The Times. London.
Saturday, January 20, 2018


Relations between the DUP and the Tories are under increasing strain amid uncertainty over when the £1 billion promised as part of the confidence and supply deal to keep the Conservatives in power will be delivered.

Next week will mark the first anniversary of the collapse of the Northern Ireland assembly. This has caused difficulties on both sides of the Irish Sea, with civil servants reluctant to take key decisions or spend money. Northern Ireland’s cancer strategy is ten years old but cannot be revised without an executive at Stormont. Campaigners say the impasse is at least partially at fault for declining standards.

This week the DUP publicly demanded that Westminster politicians take over the running of the province if Sinn Fein and the Unionists cannot agree to restart power-sharing.

Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland secretary, will shortly restart talks to try to get the assembly running, with few optimistic of success as Sinn Fein refuses to take part. Mrs. May is reluctant to countenance direct rule if this fails.

Only £20 million of the £1 billion from the confidence and supply deal has been transferred, with £30 million rolled over until the next financial year.

The DUP officially supports the dispersal timetable but officials are reluctant to take charge of making large sums available and it is unclear what happens if power-sharing or direct rule is not restored. Mrs. Bradley had briefly suggested on Thursday that the additional funding was only available if power-sharing was restored, before clarifying her remarks.

“The lack of devolved institutions is an issue”, a cabinet minister told The Times. Senior Tory figures are worried that the DUP was unnerved by Downing Street’s behavior over the first part of the Brexit negotiations, which the party initially refused to endorse, and wants to be able to guarantee when the cash will arrive. Few Tories believe that the DUP will abandon the confidence and supply agreement because it is vehemently opposed to Jeremy Corbyn getting into power. However, they do believe that the DUP could apply pressure by using hardline tactics to get its way since the government depends on its MPs to pass legislation.

Each week, the Tories must negotiate the length of time that the ten DUP MPs are in Westminster and outside of these hours the government could, in theory, be ambushed. “This government only has a majority for 36 hours,” one source said. There is concern that the DUP could team up with opposition MPs and defeat the government over so-called waspi women — a group that wants to rectify an injustice to the pensions of women born in the 1950s. Such a defeat could cost the government several billion pounds and senior DUP figures are aware this could be a strong bargaining tool.