Earlier this month, Britain experienced a shock election result. Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May narrowly won the election but lost her parliamentary majority, having called the election with the intention of strengthening her position prior to the start of the Brexit negotiations. Britain is a multi-party state rather than a two-party state, and when no political party wins a clear majority of parliamentary seats, there is a “hung parliament” where no single party commands an overall majority. One possible solution to this gridlock is the forming of a coalition government, but with the Liberal Democrats having ruled out entering into coalition with the Conservatives, the Democratic Unionist Party appeared on the horizon. The DUP’s website crashed as the public tried to find out who they were, and it did not take long for the protests to begin against a party described on hastily drawn banners as “hateful” and “extreme.”
An agreement between the Conservatives and the DUP was announced by party leaders this week; in exchange for DUP support of the Tories’ legislative agenda—including Brexit legislation—£1 billion in additional funding will go to Northern Ireland over the next two years.
Among other socially conservative positions, the DUP is known for its opposition to abortion. Curious to know more about the party that has become a target for such intense hatred in the space of a week—while remaining little-known outside Northern Ireland—I spoke to Liam Gibson, the Northern Ireland development officer for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC). Mr. Gibson has many years’ experience of political lobbying in Northern Ireland, and works closely with pro-life MPs across the political spectrum to defend the rights of the unborn and to keep abortion out of Northern Ireland.
CWR: Most people in Britain woke up the morning after the election to discover that the Conservative government was considering forming a coalition with a party they knew very little about. What is the DUP and how does it fit into the broader political landscape in Northern Ireland?
Liam Gibson: The Democratic Unionist Party is the largest political group in Northern Ireland, and took 36 percent of the votes cast in Northern Ireland in the General Election. It represents the unionist position, which wants the six counties of Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom. Overall unionist voters make up a bit more than half the people of Northern Ireland and come almost exclusively from the Protestant community.
CWR: The DUP has 10 elected Members of Parliament. Can you tell us anything about them? Who are the key players within the party?
Gibson: Over half of the 10 MPs have had at least some ministerial experience in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government but the most senior member of the DUP’s Westminster team is Nigel Dodds, the party’s deputy leader. Sir Jeffery Donaldson is also an important figure. Both of them have been outspoken allies of the pro-life movement in Northern Ireland and worked closely with SPUC for many years.
CWR: The DUP’s founder, Ian Paisley, was viciously anti-Catholic and referred to the Pope as “his Satanic Majesty.” Can Catholics lend their support to a party with such an openly anti-Catholic history?
Gibson: Northern Ireland has a complicated history. The country was formed in 1922 from the six northern counties of Ireland, where there was a Protestant majority. This majority wished to remain in the UK when the rest of Ireland became self-governing. For the next 50 years, Catholics [in Northern Ireland] faced intimidation and discrimination and had little protection from public authorities even when they experienced violence. Much of this was because Protestant identity and loyalty to the British State were seen as virtually the same thing. In the late 1960s, when Catholic efforts to achieve civil rights were met with violence, many Catholics concluded that an end of British rule was the only solution. This resulted in 30 years of politically motivated violence before there was an agreement to share power between the Catholic and Protestant communities. The Troubles were never genuinely a religious conflict in spite of the fact that tribal politics and religious identity closely intertwined.
Ian Paisley, especially in his early career as a politician and religious minister, was vehemently anti-Catholic. Towards the end of his life, however, this hostility to the Faith diminished. Eventually, he led his party into a coalition government with Sinn Féin, the biggest party seeking the reunification of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic. But even during the Troubles, Dr. Paisley was prepared to work with Catholics on moral issues, and his party was firmly committed to ensuring abortion laws in Northern Ireland were not liberalized. In recent years cooperation has greatly increased between Protestant politicians—especially those in the DUP—and Catholics in the pro-life movement. Sadly, Protestant politicians have been prepared to defend Christian moral values when many of their Catholic counterparts have given way. Most Catholic politicians see their faith as a personal matter which should not influence their decisions as a public representatives. This has led to a small but growing number of Catholics who vote for the DUP because of the stand they’ve taken on moral issues.
CWR: The DUP has become the target of an intense hate campaign, with protests in London against a supposedly “anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-science” party. What do you think is motivating all this rage?
Gibson: I think this hatred rests on a number of factors. Firstly, the far-left are lashing out in disappointment because they came much closer to winning the [June 8] election than they expected, and they’re now focusing this frustration upon the party that has made it possible for the Conservatives to continue in power.
Secondly, I think there is probably more than a little anti-Irish prejudice involved in the overreaction of the media. The idea that Irish people are backwards, superstitious, and unenlightened has prevailed in British society for a very long time, although it is not as obvious as it once was. The anti-Irish element of the attacks on the DUP is ironic since they would never consider themselves Irish at all. In England, however, they will always be outsiders even among their allies.
But most significantly there is a huge level of anti-Christian prejudice in liberal sections of British society, and especially in the media. This isn’t a uniquely British phenomenon, the same hatred can be seen in the extreme reaction to Donald Trump’s election in the US. It is a well-established pattern in far-left politics to engender hatred of its opponents by denouncing them as evil racists, anti-Semites, and a threat to the whole of society. The DUP has been characterized as dinosaurs, thugs, and bigots, although few people would have even heard of the party two weeks before the election.
CWR: Looking more specifically at some of the criticisms of the DUP—is there any justification for the claim that the DUP is anti-woman?
Gibson: No. No one can point to a single policy of the DUP which would deny women any rights enjoyed by men. The label of being anti-woman is simply used as a euphemism for believing in the right to life of children before birth. The term also is intended to create the idea that all women are in favor of liberal abortion laws, which is obviously false. Fifty years on from the legalization of abortion in Britain, we know just how damaging abortion can be on women’s health, so being pro-life can’t be equated with being anti-woman.
Gibson: This label is intended to draw a moral equivalence between racism or anti-Semitism and opposition to the latest political objective of the homosexualist lobby. Yet the word doesn’t really have any fixed meaning. It’s even been used to silence homosexuals opposed to the redefinition of marriage.
CWR: What influence might the DUP have on abortion in Britain?
Gibson: The DUP has already made a huge difference by simply preventing the Labour Party from forming a minority government following the June 8 election. The significance of this for the pro-life cause would be difficult to overestimate. It would almost certainly have led to the total decriminalization of abortion in Britain. It is no exaggeration to say that the guiding principles of the current leadership of the Labour Party are almost as extreme as Soviet-era Communism. If Labour had taken power, then anti-Christian prejudice would likely have given way to active persecution for anyone promoting social policies based on Christian values. But they will also want to mitigate some of the harsher austerity measures which the Conservatives implemented in the previous parliament.
It’s also worth noting that the DUP effectively prevented the liberalization of British abortion laws nine years ago. At that time abortion advocates in the House of Commons were determined to radically expand access to abortion. This included plans to impose the Abortion Act on Northern Ireland. At a pro-life rally in Belfast, Jeffrey Donaldson declared that if the law was introduced against the wishes of the Assembly, then he as a Minister in the Northern Ireland government would refuse to implement it. Faced with the prospect of a constitutional crisis, the London government decided just days later to call a halt to any further discussion of the issue.
CWR: Is there a risk of a backlash against the pro-life position?
Gibson: Any role for the DUP in the Westminster government is likely to galvanize the most militant elements of the pro-abortion lobby, including those inside the Conservative Party. The demonization of the DUP by the liberal media and the far-left is simply the first stage in undermining the new government and another election any time soon could easily result in a Labour victory. Again, experience in the US shows that electoral defeat is not the end of the matter.
CWR: In your opinion, is a coalition of this nature really sustainable?
Gibson: The DUP is familiar with the difficulties of coalition government. … Although the nature of the agreement will focus on economic issues, the UK’s exit from the European Union, and the response to Islamic terrorism, it is possible that horse-trading could result in policies hostile to the rights of Christians being dropped from the government’s plans. Abortion advocates are already using the DUP’s position to call for the Prime Minister to ensure “reproductive rights” are made available across the whole of the UK. In other words, they’re demanding that the Abortion Act is imposed on Northern Ireland.
CWR: Much is being said about the effect the DUP might have on Westminster, but how might a coalition affect the political situation in Northern Ireland itself?
Gibson: Northern Ireland’s devolved government has lurched from one crisis to the next since it was re-established after the Good Friday Agreement [in 1998]. While deals have been reached in circumstances where no one thought it was possible, the government collapsed in January and at present it is difficult to see how it can be restored. Issues surrounding Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Irish Republic after the UK leaves the EU and the increasingly polarized situation created by successive elections have raised enormous problems. In themselves, these problems could prove to be insurmountable. The new role of the DUP in the London government will probably make them even harder to resolve. Yet no matter how dysfunctional politics becomes, it is extremely unlikely that there will be a return to the violence of the past.
The Troubles began in 1969 and lasted for 30 years. During that time about 3,000 people lost their lives. Yet since the passage of the Abortion Act in 1967, around 8.7 million babies have been killed by abortion in Britain and the death toll continues to rise. Sadly, this is a much greater threat to peace in Northern Ireland. And without the restoration of devolved government in Belfast it will be increasingly difficult for us to protect women and children here from the violence of abortion.