“Money, that’s what I want.” It’s a Beatles song from 1963, though originally a Tamla Motown track. It is also probably a fair indicator of what is on the script for the DUP’s negotiations with Theresa May. Whatever else Arlene Foster and her colleagues are looking for, it is a fair bet that more finance is in there.
This is not simple guess work. Back in 2015, when a hung parliament was actually predicted, the DUP had its ‘Northern Ireland Plan’ already in place. The focus included tax, investment and revenue funding for our public services. Quite simply, this meant more money from Westminster to support the NHS and education, both for day-to-day costs and to help with a new building programme. The DUP also asked for “assistance to reform and transform our public services” – which might mean assistance with up-front payments – new technology and redundancy settlements – that would reduce future staff costs.
Northern Ireland’s infrastructure is clearly in need of more investment. Much of its poor condition – for example, roads – can be argued to be the legacy of past direct rule neglect, creating perhaps a stronger argument for Westminster to contribute to new spending. Road scheme investment would be very popular. Given the strength of the DUP in the east, it might be particularly keen to attract money for the upgrade of the York Street interchange. But help with the cost of agreed schemes to upgrade the Belfast to Londonderry and Londonderry to Dublin roads would also assist with budget management.
Arguably the greatest need is for the modernisation of the much of the NHS estate. Better buildings and new equipment should improve the quality of health and education services, extra investment would also generate employment in the construction sector. But given the long, and lengthening, NHS waiting lists, it is likely that an injection of funds to bring down the health treatment queues would be the number one demand for the DUP.
Another item of the DUP’s shopping list is probably going to be mitigation of the cost of the Renewable Heat Incentive, ‘cash for ash’, debacle. If Theresa May can find half a billion pounds down the back of the sofa, that might make Arlene Foster very happy indeed. Contributions towards the cost of compensation to victims of historic abuse in state and religious children’s homes would be both timely and very well received.
The DUP will almost certainly be looking for help with voters’ personal financial interests. It supports the continued raising of the national living wage. It wants assistance for women who are hit by the changes to pension age that they had not planned for. It is against the means testing of the winter fuel payment for the over 65s. And it supports the continuation of the ‘triple lock’ on the state pension – that it must rise in line with the highest of the rate of inflation, average earnings, or 2.5%. Here the DUP line is in conflict with the Conservative Party manifesto, but in line with what we can guess is the view of most Conservative MPs.
Tax will be another key demand for the DUP. In 2015 the party referred to its wish for “more satisfactory terms in relation to Corporation Tax”. That desire is unlikely to have changed. While the UK’s corporation tax rate is continuing to fall – it is currently 19% – the DUP is extremely keen for Northern Ireland to have at least equivalence with the Republic’s 12.5% rate, and possibly even to undercut it at 10%. But just as importantly, the DUP would like to avoid this rate cut coming at large cost via a swingeing reduction in the block grant. A low rate of corporation tax might attract substantial foreign direct investment and new jobs, despite the threat of Brexit.
And Brexit is perhaps the most important issue of all in terms of the negotiations. Here the DUP is at risk of being seen – to paraphrase Boris Johnson – of being in favour of wanting to have its cake and eat it. In its 2015 plan, the DUP called for “proper border controls and a tougher immigration policy” – which is entirely consistent with its support for Brexit.
But it is in the Brexit solutions where the difficulties potentially lie. The DUP’s 2017 General Election manifesto had the aim of achieving every possible benefit from leaving the EU, while avoiding every possible negative. Objectives included no internal borders within the UK, so avoiding controls on goods and people travelling between NI and GB. But the party also sought a “frictionless border” with the Irish Republic, to assist those working or travelling cross-border. While the DUP rejects special status for NI, it instead wants “the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland with a land border with the EU fully reflected” in the Brexit deal.
Nor is this all. The DUP wants free trade deals with the rest of the world; a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement with the EU; Northern Ireland established as a hub for trade from Irish Republic into the rest of the UK market; and customs arrangements that facilitate trade with new and existing markets. If those objectives seem optimistic, to put it politely, just at the moment the impossible aim is that Northern Ireland-specific solutions should be achieved through active Executive engagement. Without a functioning Executive, and little prospect of agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein on Brexit objectives, that hope seems to be off the table for the moment.
Certainly the DUP cannot be faulted for ambition. But is it really possible to have no controls on movement between NI and GB, while having a ‘frictionless’ border with the Republic? Would this require the Republic to negotiate border controls with the rest of the EU? We can probably all guess the prospect of that. One solution might be for the UK to retain membership of the Customs Union while leaving the Single Market. But that still risks border passport controls to inhibit the free movement of people between the EU and the UK. Anyway, retaining UK membership of the Customs Union might be beyond even the acknowledged negotiating powers of the DUP.