In a guest post, Rowan Tunnicliffe argues that focusing on the DUP’s social conservatism is not enough; progressives must set about building an alternative.
After a tiring and unnecessary General Election campaign, the Conservative Party in Britain joined forces with the DUP. This led to some unsavoury quotes by senior DUP members being dredged up for an audience to whom this brand of ultra-conservatism was a novelty.
Politicians across the water in Great Britain launched a broadside against the party, notably referring to them as “dinosaurs” in the House of Commons.
This was an English response for an English audience. For progressives in Northern Ireland who have long suffered the DUP’s antiquated social beliefs, there was both a space and a need for a more nuanced approach.
Instead, seeing what the English media and politicians were getting away with, some progressives here have sensed it is open season to air their views on the DUP in the knowledge that they have cover from the rest of the UK.
However, this response is ultimately self-defeating. The DUP remain the largest party in Northern Ireland, and only they and Sinn Féin were able to increase their vote share in the June election. Painting them as a bogeyman ignores the fact that they are popular, and increasingly so.
The DUP’s support reaches across social classes. But it is safe to say they get the lion’s share of working and lower middle-class support in the unionist community. In England, the Conservatives are typically seen as a party for the wealthy, but such simplistic analysis ignores the fact that they also have significant support in less affluent segments of society.
Both the DUP and the Conservatives have instinctive appeal to those who seek to improve their lives, to those who aspire to a better job and to those who want to maintain a sense of their own identity. These people’s priorities may – quite understandably – lie in their own day-to-day lives, rather than pushing progressive social policies for minority groups, for example.
Speaking personally, I grew up in a lower middle-class background in England, and would have shared this attitude when I was younger. My grandfather ran a small family company, my mum was a single-parent looking after me. I grew up thinking that the Conservative Party offered a good deal for people like me, an opportunity to improve my life if I worked for it.
As someone who went on to become an economist, I now realise that any success I have achieved has come despite the policies of Thatcher and Major that were in place when I was young, not because of them.
My family were not political. Our priorities did not lie in noble causes. Even if we were sympathetic to marriage equality (and we were), it was not the driving factor that would have taken us to a polling station. Jobs, economic growth and stability were.
Mocking the DUP, and indeed the Conservatives in England, therefore makes progressives seem out of touch. It limits the appeal of politicians and activists who seem to dedicate the majority of their time and energy engaging in cheap attacks on some of the DUP’s questionable social views.
Furthermore, most people in Northern Ireland don’t care about the details of the Tory-DUP deal – the headline figure of millions of extra pounds for Northern Ireland’s healthcare system is enough to welcome it. That is not to say it should not face criticism, but that criticism should not become our defining message.
Progressives hold the solutions to many of the problems that traditional DUP (and indeed Conservative) supporters face. A good example of this is a motion brought to Belfast City Council recently by the Green Party’s Georgina Milne, which called for increased investment in the renewable energy sector in Belfast. This would secure existing manufacturing jobs in the city and create more on a long-term, sustainable basis. These would be better quality and better paid jobs than many currently have.
Instead of dedicating significant amounts of time attacking the DUP, as progressives we should be spending our time articulating and promoting these positive alternatives to the status quo.
It will be much harder work than simply condemning crass and deplorable comments on, for example, homosexuality, but in the end, it will create the electoral growth to take progressive parties to government.
It is only through being in that position that we will be able to implement the policies that will help those whose equality we rightly campaign for, as well as those whose priorities lie elsewhere.
Rowan Tunnicliffe is an economist who lives in Belfast. He is the Secretary of the Green Party in Northern Ireland. Any views expressed in this piece are personal views and should not be taken to be representative of the Green Party.
17 July 2017