Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist party, currently the fourth largest in the House of Commons, should not be understood in simple left/right terms, argues Sophie Whiting. In post-election negotiations the DUP will seek to protect funding but also to block Westminster 'meddling' in the region's social and moral affairs.

Amid many uncertainties surrounding the outcome of the general election, one safe bet is that smaller parties at Westminster will have the opportunity to play a significant role in determining who occupies Number 10. This prospect has naturally increased the attention paid to regionalist and nationalist parties. In anticipation of an increase in seats, the Scottish National party (SNP) has positioned its former leader and political heavyweight for a role at Westminster. In common with the SNP, Wales's Plaid Cymru party has ruled out supporting a minority Conservative administration.

There is another regionalist party that has yet to declare its potentially influential hand. The Democratic Unionist party (DUP) is not only Northern Ireland's largest party but the fourth largest at Westminster. And relegation to fifth in the wake of an SNP surge may not diminish the DUP's importance. The party holds eight of the 18 Northern Irish seats in the House of Commons, a total which is likely to rise if, as expected, the DUP recaptures East Belfast, surprisingly lost by party leader Peter Robinson in 2010.

Within UK politics, Northern Ireland is often viewed as a 'place apart', far removed from Westminster, where identity politics, flags and marching overshadow 'normal' electoral concerns, such as the economy and health service. So what would a Northern Irish party be looking to get out of a hung parliament, and how can the DUP impact the outcome of the next general election?

With a collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote seemingly assured, the Conservatives and Labour have been 'wooing' the DUP for the past 18 months. Nigel Dodds, leader of the DUP in Westminster, has been relatively quiet about the party's strategy in the event of a hung parliament. Yet, in the past few weeks, Dodds has begun to drip-feed the party's plans and expectations to the media.
At a glance, which of the two main parties would make a more natural bedfellow for the DUP? Dodds has so far been ambiguous in his intentions, pointing out common ground with both Labour and the Conservatives. On the one hand, the DUP are anti-austerity and support Labour's opposition to the so-called 'bedroom tax'. On the other, a great deal of compatibility with the Conservative party can be found in areas such as stricter immigration control, law and order, and support for a referendum on EU membership.

Who are the DUP?

The DUP has traditionally been viewed as ethno-religious party. Formed by the late Reverend Ian Paisley in 1971, the party was created to protect Protestant values and defend Northern Ireland's place in the UK. The party was staunchly opposed to any compromise with republicans. In 2003, the DUP became the largest party in the Northern Irish assembly, and three years later Paisley amazed many by agreeing to share power with Sinn F?(C)in, the DUP's historic enemy. No longer operating as a party of protest in Northern Ireland, the DUP now have the opportunity to extend their influence further in Westminster.

While Dodds is playing his cards close to his chest, data from a recent survey of DUP members is quite revealing about the DUP's political positioning, and may give an indication of possible allegiances come May (see Tonge J, Braniff M, Hennessey T, McAuley J and Whiting S (2014) The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power, Oxford University Press). On a simple left–right spectrum, between 0 at the left and 10 at the right, the average DUP member is an 8. And at a grassroots level, the natural sway of the party is very clear. When asking DUP members 'which of the three largest British political parties do you feel closest to?', 50 per cent said the Conservatives, compared to only 7.4 per cent Labour and 4.4 per cent Liberal Democrats. Considering the membership's political leanings you might think the party's choices are straightforward.

However, to understand the party and its future in Westminster on a simple left/right basis would be missing the point. Survey data also reveals that members did not join the party because of its policies on immigration control or stance on the EU. Unlike the UK as a whole, DUP members do not rate the economy, unemployment or the health service as the most important political issues. For this group, it is Northern Ireland's place in the UK that dominates as an issue of political concern. In protecting this, the DUP can afford to be pragmatic in its deal-making. The politics of identity still dominate Northern Irish elections. The party leadership has been clear that strengthening the UK will be a key aspect of any partnership. For the DUP, the general election will be fought not on issues of left/right but, as phrased by Dodds, what is right for Northern Ireland.

What is the going price for a deal with the DUP?

It is clear that the DUP would not be opposed to a political partnership with Labour or the Conservatives on ideological grounds. Most recently the party has also suggested that it would support a Labour–Lib-Dem government. The most unlikely scenario would be for the party to prop up a deal between Labour and the SNP, as the DUP's protection of the union is fundamentally opposed to the Scottish nationalists' position, and it is doubtful whether the party's pragmatism could stretch quite that far. Then again, albeit in a different political context, there was a time when it was inconceivable to think of the DUP sharing power in a devolved executive with Sinn F?(C)in.

No pact in politics is ever straightforward, but there is a track record of Northern Irish parties and politicians wanting to create distance between themselves and 'Westminster politics'. In 2010, the Ulster Unionist party (UUP) entered an electoral alliance with the Conservatives, but the only UUP MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, stood successfully as an independent in opposition to the agreement. Naomi Long, the first MP for the Alliance party, currently sits on the opposition benches, despite Alliance being a sister party of the Liberal Democrats. And despite the clear indication that DUP members feel ideologically closer to the Conservatives than they do to Labour, DUP–Conservative relations were at their worst when the Tories had one of their toughest and most right-wing leaders. Margaret Thatcher's 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement was vehemently opposed by the DUP because it gave the Irish government an advisory role in the affairs of Northern Ireland, and DUP members are still hostile to Irish 'interference' in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

It is therefore not surprising that Nigel Dodds has indicated that, if the DUP is going to prop up a minority government, confidence and supply would be the most likely option over formal coalition. The DUP would be looking for protection of the block grant to Northern Ireland, as well as extra funding for new infrastructure projects. The DUP is also insistent that the government maintains spending on defence at 2 per cent of GDP.

To some extent, more devolved powers have already been promised. In the last autumn statement the chancellor George Osborne made a policy announcement devolving the power to set corporation tax, effective from 2017. The DUP have long argued this would enable Northern Ireland to compete with the lower rates set across the border in Ireland, as well as encouraging investment and jobs growth while reducing dependency on the region's swollen public sector. Labour have since stated that they would not oppose the devolution of corporation tax to the Northern Ireland executive.

However, these issues are never quite so straightforward. First, the devolution of corporation tax is dependent on Northern Ireland delivering commitments attached to December's Stormont House Agreement, a package of financial support worth £2 billion that is conditional on the implementation of efficiency measures and public sector reforms. Second, the cut in corporation tax would most likely be balanced by a reduction in the block grant Stormont receives from Westminster. Until the Northern Ireland executive agrees the rate at which its corporation tax will be set, it is unclear how much money would have to be returned. Therefore, in terms of setting fiscal guarantees as an incentive in May, it is not quite as simple as assuming that the DUP would settle with the highest bidder.

Another price for DUP support will be continuing legislative autonomy for Northern Ireland in two key areas: abortion and gay marriage. Currently, the region is exempt from the 1967 Abortion Act, and abortion can only be carried out if the physical or mental health of the mother is at risk; when surveyed in 2013, 73 per cent of DUP members opposed the legalisation of abortion. This stance reflects how religious conservatism remains a major influence on party policy. Nearly 60 per cent of party members go to church once or more a week and only 4 per cent describe themselves as 'not at all religious'. This characteristic is particularly pertinent in coming to understand how moral and political matters are often viewed as intertwined.

Most recently, the party's religious conservatism has been demonstrated in the debate on gay rights. The Northern Irish assembly has rejected same-sex marriage on three occasions. Each time, the DUP has tabled a petition of concern ensuring that the motion would be blocked under the assembly's cross-community voting rules. Two-thirds of party members believe 'homosexuality is wrong'.

Asked about the influence of religion on the party, one assembly member has said: 'I believe that politics came about through religion " if you use the Ten Commandments you can almost formulate every law that you need' (Tonge et al 2014). Currently, the party is advocating a 'conscience clause' that would exempt Northern Ireland from equality legislation on the grounds of religious rights. Therefore, in the event of negotiations in May, it is just as likely that the party will be making negative demands (against Westminster interference) as positive (for grant protection).

Decision time

We are moving into a new era of post-devolution politics with regionalist and nationalist parties playing a more important role. This comes at a price for the main Westminster parties. Like the SNP, the DUP wants an end to 'austerity economics', but unlike the Scottish nationalists it also wants a strong union. Crucially, however, DUP demands cannot necessarily be understood in traditional 'Westminster terms'. The party wants the usual shopping list of increased grants and funds, but it is also necessary to weigh up what they do not want. On some issues, the DUP will take the money, but its members do not want a Westminster administration that meddles in Northern Ireland's social and moral affairs.

Sophie Whiting is a lecturer in politics at the University of Liverpool.

This article appears in edition 21.4 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.