The DUP’s Nigel Dodds may soon be propping up the Tories. What does he want?

The Orangeman with the First in law from Cambridge has found himself suddenly popular with Commons colleagues

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

Nigel Dodds, the Democratic Unionist Party leader at Westminster, is reflecting drolly on his party’s recent popularity: ‘I certainly think that the last year or two has been remarkable in the number of new friends we have encountered, people who are very keen to have a cup of tea or chat to you or whatever. I don’t put it all down to our natural charm.’ As pre-election talk of political pacts thickens — with both Conservatives and Labour angling for support — former House of Commons wallflowers have found their dance cards increasingly full.

Which of the main parties might feel like a more natural ally? I ask. Dodds won’t commit to either, but observes that historically unionists lean towards the Tories: ‘Growing up, I think naturally we felt the Conservatives were more trustworthy on the Union.’ On the other hand, ‘The DUP had reasonably good relations with the Labour government in terms of Gordon Brown and working through the St Andrew’s Agreement. So we are not in the pocket of either of the main parties.’

The 56-year-old Dodds — an Orange Order member with a First in law from Cambridge — has been a player in Northern Ireland politics for decades now: at 29, he was the youngest ever Lord Mayor of Belfast. Yet after youthful academic success in the tranquil halls of St John’s College, Cambridge, didn’t he consider a legal career in England? ‘I was tempted. But I never really seriously considered it because I’m a political animal and if you have politics in your blood — and especially Northern Ireland politics — it just basically drives you.’ Nonetheless, he says, his mother, a former school dinner lady, might have liked him to have been a solicitor: something prosperous, quiet and solid.

Instead, drama has never been far from Dodds’ life amid the acrimony and adrenalin of Northern Ireland politics. He grew up in Enniskillen, Fermanagh, and was in his teens in the early 1970s when the Troubles flared up in earnest. His family attended the Free Presbyterian church, in an era when the thunderous rhetoric of its leader Ian Paisley — heavily laced with exhortations against the Catholic Church — was first making inflammatory headlines. At the same time the IRA was waging a sectarian border campaign in Fermanagh as it sought violently to purge the area of local Protestants and their families. The IRA’s targets were frequently serving or former members of the British Army’s Ulster Defence Regiment: Dodds’s own father Joe, a DUP councillor, was in the UDR.

A 1972 double IRA shooting, of the Protestant farmer and UDR man Tom Bullock and his wife Emily, made a deep impression on the young Dodds: ‘I remember going to stand outside the hospital after the Bullock family were murdered on their farm, and there was such an outpouring of grief that people gathered to see their coffins being brought out of the hospital.’ In that atmosphere, ‘Here was Ian Paisley speaking up at that time when you didn’t really know what the Ulster Unionists were about. Jim Molyneaux was in charge of the UUP, doing stuff in Westminster, and it didn’t really seem relevant to what was happening on the ground.’ Yet at the time, he says, ‘the DUP was seen as almost a fringe cult movement’ while the bulk of unionists gravitated towards the more moderate, middle-class Ulster Unionist party. After the 2010 election, the Ulster Unionists did not have a single Westminster MP.

I put it to Dodds that the DUP has often been viewed from outside as a sectarian party, particularly by Catholics: has there been a shift? ‘Yes I think there has been,’ he says, while arguing that people are quick to label unionists sectarian simply for being unionist, yet not applying that label to nationalists and republicans. Still, he says that the DUP has broadened from the days when it was seen as ‘very much a one-man band’, that man being Paisley senior. Under its new leader, Peter Robinson, the DUP appears keen to move away from the divisive theological language that was once Big Ian’s stock-in-trade, and on to more straightforwardly political terrain.

‘Peter has made the point that he wants to reach out and make the Union something that Roman Catholic people feel comfortable about,’ he says. ‘We have a long way to go. We’re not dealing with years here, we’re dealing with decades.’ He is nonetheless vocal on the importance of flying the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall: ‘It speaks to our British identity.’ Yet, he says, many ordinary Catholics share the social conservatism of the DUP — opposition to policies such as gay marriage and easily accessible abortion — and tell him while canvassing that on those particular issues, ‘I don’t have anybody in my community who represents me any more.’ Over the years he has visited the families of murdered loyalists, IRA victims, and Catholics murdered by loyalist paramilitaries: ‘I went to make the point that all human life is sacred no matter what people believe or anything else. These deaths are tragic and terrible for the families.’

One of the more shocking incidents of the Troubles came in 1996, when IRA gunmen made an assassination attempt on Dodds and his police bodyguards in the children’s ward of a Belfast hospital, as he and his wife Diane visited their seriously ill seven-year-old son Andrew. One policeman was injured in the attack. Andrew, who suffered from spina bifida and hydrocephalus, died two years later. I ask Dodds how it felt when the DUP first shared power with Sinn Fein politicians at Stormont in 2007 (a move which triggered the striking sight of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness regularly roaring with laughter together, leading Ulster wags to dub them the Chuckle Brothers).

Dodds is less effusive. ‘It’s very, very difficult personally,’ he says. ‘It never leaves you, something like that. I’ll never be a friend or be chummy with these people, but I’ll do business with people who are political opponents in the best interests of Northern Ireland, including those of victims.’ Does he follow Gerry Adams on Twitter? (The Sinn Fein president has become notable for tweeting about rubber ducks and teddy bears, and recently told an interviewer that he trampolines naked with his dog.) ‘I don’t, but I know people who do and tell me about his strange, bizarre and esoteric tweets.’

With the revelation that the SNP would seek to bring down a minority Conservative government, the Tory party’s options are narrowing in the event of a hung parliament: the DUP Westminster MPs — there were eight of them last time — could prove crucial to its grip on power. Yet although the SNP and the DUP have radically different visions for the future of the UK, there are strong cultural similarities: politicians in both parties instinctively understand the vigorous cultivation of local contacts, the importance of a strong handshake and a timely family inquiry, the ritual sharing of tea and a tray-bake and the banishment of condescension. Dodds points out the dangers of overstyling one’s image, referring to the fallout from Miliband and Cameron’s recent interviews in their kitchens: ‘If you’re going to do a political interview, just do it in your workplace.’

He continues: ‘Even though the Scots Nats believe what they do, there is quite a good personal relationship between them and the DUP. Ian Paisley and Alex Salmond got on famously.’ But a Miliband alliance with the Scots Nats would be ‘the worst thing you can imagine for the United Kingdom’.

Last month Dodds set forth DUP demands in exchange for support: a UK-wide scrapping of the ‘harsh’ bedroom tax; an in-out EU referendum; and guarantees on defence spending and border controls. He firmly believes in a muscular Britain that plays ‘a role upon a world stage’. Yet his party colleague Ian Paisley Junior later chipped in with a blunter hard-cash demand of ‘hundreds of millions’ in extra UK money for Northern Ireland. Is the price going up? ‘No. We are unionists but it’s not just about Northern Ireland, there are issues in terms of the good of the UK that we are passionate about.’

What, then, would be the ideal outcome of the election? ‘As Peter Robinson said, we are easy about which party comes out on top — provided it comes out needing the support of just about nine or ten MPs.’ At that prospect, Mr Dodds permits himself a small, wry smile.

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Show comments
  • John Carins

    He wants to strengthen the Union which can only be a good thing..

    • JoeCro

      Strengthen the Union by getting more subsidy from England!!

      • John Carins

        These loyal people have actually been let down by the neo Liberal establishment. N’ Ireland probably deserves a bit more cash as do poorer regions of England/Wales. These loyal people are not the dreadful SNP who deserve nothing but our contempt.

        • Gary

          Our public sector is already 70% of the economy here. Robert Muldoon and Olof Palme were born in the wrong countries! All the Executive parties were in favour of addressing this until Cameron put the figures out there on the national stage five years ago and they soon retreated back into their shells. To paraphrase a very famous political slogan, the DUP can be summed up as having “A Union Flag in one hand and a begging bowl in the other.”

          • Chingford Man

            Maybe we shall see a great swing to the NI Conservatives, and many of its candidates, who, according to their Twitter feeds, aren’t even in the Province at the moment.

  • Peter Stroud

    I honestly thought that the only left wing party in NI was the SDLP. I had the impression that all of the Unionists were natural Tory supporters. Obviously I need to read more about NI politics.

    • Sherdy

      The SDLP are as left wing as Nigel Farage!
      They started off with labour ideals but are now composed of doctors, lawyers and teachers.
      Yes, your education is lacking, but you’re only one of very many.

  • Jeffrey Peel

    Most of Northern Ireland’s political parties are fiscally left in that they want to maximise the block grant/government spending. But some (like the DUP) are socially very right-wing. They tend not to like a lot of groups – especially gays. The DUP also has quite a few flat earth creationists. Sinn Fein used to have an armed wing that blew people up. Alliance is non-sectarian but stands for little else other than niceness. The SDLP is irrelevant, as is the UUP. So, as far as Westminster is concerned, the DUP is the only show in town. But it’s hardly a bundle of laughs.

    • Closedshop

      The DUP had an armed wing as well and many of its members have murder convictions.

      • Chingford Man

        Name a dozen who have murder convictions.

        • Nanko Costers

          Oh, like it’s going to be hard to name a dozen UDA/UVF goons with murder convictions….

          Billy Hutchinson
          Gusty Spence
          Robert Campbell
          Michael Stone
          Billy Moore
          John Weir
          Noel Clarke
          Bobby Rodgers
          John Howcroft
          Torrens Knight
          John Jordan
          Steven Brown

          • Pete

            “The DUP had an armed wing as well and many of its members have murder convictions.” That is the statement you are attempting to justify.

            Who out of the people you have listed are/were DUP members?

          • Nanko Costers

            I have no flipping idea, and it is irrelevant. We are talking about the ARMED WING of the DUP – which is the UDA/UVF. Cretin.

          • Pete

            But they aren’t part of the DUP, they are separate organisations.

          • Sherdy

            DUP have always been interchangeable with UDA and UVF when it suits the occasion.

          • Chingford Man

            How many of the above names are or have been DUP members? Do you have reading difficulties?

          • Nanko Costers

            It doesn’t matter how many of the above “are of have been DUP members”. The point is that they are UDA/UVF members, and the UDA/UVF are the the armed wing of the DUP, you empty-headed Kipper moron. Go and play in the traffic, you useless trolling swine.

          • Chingford Man

            Are you “Farage’s Fried Chicken”? Your posts have a comparable aggressive moronic quality, as if you’re not taking your anti-psychotic pills.

          • Nanko Costers

            What is “Chingford Man”? Is it something like “Piltdown Man”, ie an apelike creature which is also a complete fake?

          • Chingford Man

            No, I’m a f e c k i n Troll Hunter.

  • Interesting article. Their list of demands was looking good up until “and a big pile of money because Scotland gets it so why not us?”

  • Auldreekie

    “Yet although the SNP and the DUP have radically different visions for
    the future of the UK, there are strong cultural similarities:
    politicians in both parties instinctively understand the vigorous
    cultivation of local contacts, the importance of a strong handshake and a
    timely family inquiry, the ritual sharing of tea and a tray-bake and
    the banishment of condescension.”

    A speculative presumption. What knowledge of the SNP does Jenny Mccartney have, that allows her to talk of ‘cultural similarity’?

    The claim of “quite a good personal relationship” between the SNP and the DUP is not something I have been aware of in several decades of active SNP membership. Common courtesy between individuals at Westminster should not be mistaken for any sort of common bond. To members and supporters of the SNP, members of the Orange Order like Mr Dodds are not people whose company they would choose.

    • Chingford Man

      In the past the SNP happily accepted votes from Orange supporters when such people withdrew support from the Labour Party in places like Monklands.

  • Graeme S

    Great article ? There is more about the good folk of Northern ireland than meets the eye ?
    I sick to death of hearing about those wretched Nats

    • ChuckieStane

      Finally taking in interest when you want something back?

  • Gary

    Some parties here hijack the Union Flag to win votes but when it actually comes to taking some responsibility and governing the country they claim to be so desperate to remain a part of, they buckle and run away. The DUP and UUP are no more Unionist than the SNP, Plaid and English Democrats in that they only have the interests of one consistuent part of the UK at heart. That is their right but it is important that voters here and on the mainland can see through their rhetoric. We have had more than 15 years now since the Agreement and we need to make much more progress in ridding Northern Ireland of the two evils that hold all our people back irrespective of their background – sectarianism and statism.

  • mikewaller

    “The Celtic fringe” needs to recognise that yet more demands for English gold are going to go down very badly with the English. With Scotland, the one of the three who actually got close to paying its own way, seemingly on the way out, how long before an ENP starts campaigning for similarly going it alone?

  • CommonSense Matters

    The Spec’s take on Fantasy Football. As the juggernaut of public support for Labour continues in unyielding momentum, this publication goes from the touting of slime to the ridiculous. And you think there is something wrong with 70% public sector economy in NI? On this basis I should hope it was 100%.

    • Rhys Pilko

      http://may2015.com/category/poll-of-polls/ labour are in red. not exactly a ‘juggernaut of public support for labour’

      • CommonSense Matters

        RP lots of people don’t choose who to vote for until a week before the election. Labour have built a credible and considered campaign which has gained wide popular support. The Tories are playing to empty cowsheds. Come on, empty cowshed vs being mobbed by a hen party. I think we have some of the anecdotes of the juggernaut. I do wonder who they’re phoning. Must be Cornwall or somewhere else with a lot of landed gentry.