Conservatives, Northern Ireland's DUP look for common ground

Attention has turned worldwide to Arlene Foster and the Democratic Unionist Party, the Northern Ireland group set to prop up Theresa May's Conservative government following Thursday's shocking general election result.

Britain saw a formal coalition 7 years ago, but most expect looser arrangement to emerge after Thursday vote

British Prime Minister Theresa May, left, and Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and most recent first minister of Northern Ireland. Both have been criticized in the first months of this year, but could forge an arrangement to keep the Conservatives in government following Thursday's general election. (Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images, Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

You might have come to the end of one thing, but you didn't have the certainty of knowing the next thing.

So said British Prime Minister David Cameron in the BBC documentary Five Days That Changed Britain, recounting months later the fevered negotiations after the 2010 U.K. election, which saw his Conservatives enter a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

That development came out of the first hung government result in 36 years, but after Thursday's general election, the United Kingdom faces the same uncertain scenario as the Conservatives failed to secure a majority.

Despite a disappointing election campaign in which her party will lose 12 or 13 seats — leading to some calls for her to step down — Cameron's successor, Theresa May, has received permission from Buckingham Palace to form a new government.

The early speculation sees the Conservatives being propped up by the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland (DUP), winners of 10 seats and led by Arlene Foster.

"Our two parties have enjoyed a strong relationship over many years, and this gives me the confidence to believe that we will be able to work together in the interests of the whole United Kingdom," May said of the potential partners as a hung parliament became inevitable.

Foster is the most recent first minister in Northern Ireland, having taken over in 2016 when Peter Robinson of the DUP retired. She previously oversaw energy and environment files in her 12 years in elected office, after moving over from the Ulster Nationalist Party in 2003.

She now could be kingmaker in the U.K., seeking to extract concessions from the Conservatives.

Formed in the early 1970s by Rev. Ian Paisley, the DUP is pro-life and opposed to gay marriage, and not every member is a believer in the concepts of climate change and evolution.

"I make no apology for saying that the DUP will always strive for the best deal for Northern Ireland and its people," said Foster. "But equally, we want the best for all of the United Kingdom."

Democratic Unionist party leader speaks to media

5 years ago
Duration 0:57
Support from Democratic Unionist Party is crucial to U.K. Conservatives' hold on government 0:57

Foster additionally said of May on Friday that "it will be difficult for her to survive" as prime minister.

Strong talk for a woman who like May has just been roundly criticized for running a poor campaign – three months ago when the DUP lost five seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly election, finishing with just one more than Sinn Fein. A power-sharing arrangement is still to be worked out there; talks were put on hold due to the British election until late June.

So it seems the trained lawyer will be well engaged in negotiations for the foreseeable future.

In addition, Foster has been hammered at home for a renewable energy spending scandal that has led to a public inquiry.

Other working partnerships

There have been examples of working partnerships in modern U.K. history.

Prime Minister John Major and his Conservatives relied on support from the Ulster Unionist Party to shore up his tiny majority in 1992-1997.

In the late 1970s, James Callaghan of the Labour Party, having succeeded Harold Wilson as leader without being elected, forged a working partnership with the Liberal Party. Callaghan didn't call an election to get the will of the people behind him, and ended up losing a non-confidence vote that paved the way for Margaret Thatcher to begin her 11 years in power for the Conservatives.

But the only coalition since the Second World War was forged just over seven years ago when Cameron and Nick Clegg reached the not-so-galvanizing The Coalition: Our Programme for Government. (If you're fuzzy on what was going on in 2010, a Tory MP's reference to the Cameron-Clegg pairing as the Brokeback coalition may help).

David Cameron is seen while prime minister in March 2015, with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. The pair made a coalition work for a number of years but both would end up damaged by political developments after the spring 2015 election. (Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA)

Cameron took a gamble then with a public entreaty of a "big, open and comprehensive offer to the Liberal Democrats," but the Liberal Democrats also considered keeping Gordon Brown's Labour government afloat. Those discussions at times were described as "pretty hideous" by one Lib Dem negotiator described in the aforementioned Five Days documentary.

The landscape has changed quite a bit in seven years. In the immediate years after the coordinated July 2005 transit bombings that killed 52, potential large-scale terror attacks were thwarted. Domestic concerns other than security mostly held sway in the calculus of what the Liberal Democrats and Conservative had to hammer out in 2010, on issues like reforming the public service and the National Health Service, and tuition fees.

By early 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Clegg was admitting "we think radically differently on a number of things," and what particularly piqued was when Cameron bowed to the so-called Euroskeptics in his party and promised a referendum vote on European Union membership.

Clegg saw the EU gambit as a "wholly implausible" attempt to "basically totally rewrite the rules to benefit us and disadvantage everybody else which is clearly not going to be agreed to."

During the 2015 election campaign, Clegg shifted, saying if toeing Cameron's line was the price of another coalition, he was prepared to do that.
Voters arrive to cast ballots at a polling station in west Belfast on Thursday. Infrastructure projects and local autonomy over some economic issues could be some of the goodies to come west in a partnership. (Paul McErlane/EPA)

Cameron won that battle convincingly, with the Liberal Democrats battered at the polls, but ended up the loser 14 months later when the Leave tally in the EU referendum ended up over two percentage points greater than Remain. He stepped down, and May emerged as PM.

Northern Irelanders were well into the Remain column in that vote. Foster, who saw her father and schoolmate injured in acts of politicized acts of violence growing up in Northern Ireland, wants to maintain the peaceful recent history with the Republic Ireland; her party favours a "soft Brexit" that would preserve the Irish border.

The Conservatives have been in favour of a hard Brexit, but may have to throw some sops westward in that regard.

Inherent challenges expected

It can reasonably be expected there will be a push for more infrastructure projects in Northern Ireland and more local autonomy in terms of taxes and other economic levers. Support for farmers there will be brought up, as they have received hundreds of millions in subsidies from the EU.

The two sides could also be simpatico on the continued promotion of a living wage, May's desire to curb immigration levels, and a need to revisit terrorism laws as Britain has suffered two attacks during the election campaign, including the deadliest since 2005.

Political observers in the U.K. are expecting something less than a formal coalition to emerge. Whatever the nature, the example struck seven years ago illustrated the inherent challenges.

Five Days also portrayed the feverish nature of talks, and that tenor should be expected again, as Britain is set to enter negotiations with the EU on Brexit on June 19.

With files from The Associated Press