As the Conservatives prepare to co-operate with the DUP to form a minority Government, Francesca Butler shares her views on the party’s attitude towards human rights.
Since May announced the snap election, PEN has been discussing the parties’ attitudes towards human rights and policies towards freedom of expression. We have also looked at the media’s coverage of the election, with the majority of national papers – besides the Guardian and the Daily Mirror – backing May and the Conservatives. In spite of this, Corbyn’s campaign was far more successful than any predictions. Whilst touring around the country, Corbyn maintained his claim to represent “Straight-talking, honest politics,” to come across as someone who believed in the ideals of his party. From Grime4Corbyn, Snapchat Stories, and #jc4pm, to inspiring an incredible array of memes, the Labour leader captured the attention and imagination of young voters in unprecedented ways — even before Labour announced their tuition fee policy. In contrast, May’s campaign was messy and inconsistent, relying mostly on scaremongering and an over-repeated slogan. Monumental policy U-turns and a wooden personality further disillusioned voters.
And so we have a hung Parliament. As predicted for this scenario, the Conservatives are teaming up with the DUP of Northern Ireland to form a minority Government, with the precise details of the arrangement yet to be revealed. Meanwhile, both parties have maintained it is unnecessary to form a coalition to keep Corbyn from becoming PM. But who are the DUP, and what do they stand for?
The Democratic Unionist Party was founded by Ian Paisley in 1971. It won 10 seats in this general election – three from the SDLP – and is the largest party in Northern Ireland with 28 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. During the 1980s the DUP had links with the paramilitary Ulster Resistance. In 2006 they agreed to enter into a power-sharing devolved government with Sinn Féin. Many prominent DUP members support creationism being taught in schools. The DUP disagree with the Conservatives on winter fuel allowance and pensions. They strongly advocated leaving the EU, although leader Arlene Foster has since spoken against a “hard Brexit.” The party is socially conservative and has expressed worrying views concerning human rights.
Women’s rights are one area of concern. The DUP is staunchly anti-abortion; Foster is a strong opponent of the Abortion Act 1967 and has vowed to prevent its extension to Northern Ireland. Having an unlawful termination in Northern Ireland still carries the same legal weight as murder. Despite a recent Belfast High Court ruling that the current abortion ban breaches international human rights law, the legislation remains unchanged primarily due to the DUP’s opposition on religious grounds.
The party is also strongly opposed to LGBT rights and gay marriage. In 2015 a Northern Ireland Assembly gay marriage vote was blocked by a DUP veto despite support from the rest of the assembly. Individually, past party ministers have expressed homophobic views, with MLA Thomas Buchanan telling schoolchildren “homosexuality is an abomination,” at a visit in 2013.
The DUP have attempted to retain a lifelong ban on gay men giving blood, and opposed same-sex couples adopting children. In 2015, their health minister said,
“The facts show that you certainly don’t bring a child up in a homosexual relationship. That child is far more likely to be abused or neglected …”
Many are worried how cooperation with DUP may affect the reforming of the Gender Recognition Act. Pink News have commented that:
“Our best realistic hope is that while LGBT rights may not progress under a Conservative-DUP alliance, the prominence of Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems in parliament will stop us from sliding backwards.”
In 2011, five DUP MPs called for a parliamentary debate on the death penalty. Amongst them was Gregory Campbell, MP for East Londonderry, supported bringing back the death penalty in the case of mass murder.
The looming coalition is all the more stark by its contrast with other possible (albeit unlikely) coalition governments and with the direction of debate during the campaign. For many young people – whose turnout in this election was unprecedented, with some estimates reaching as high as 70% – human rights are a key voting issue. Jeremy Corbyn inspired young people to vote for a party staunchly committed to upholding human rights, with higher taxes on the richest to support funding in housing, education, and healthcare. In contrast, the headlines immediately prior to the election were of May’s statement that she would abandon human rights in order to enact the deportation and surveillance policies she deemed necessary to counter a rising threat of terrorism. May has consistently worked to remove Britain from the protection of the European Court of Human Rights, and refuses to grant EU citizens currently in the UK any kind of guarantee about their rights to reside here. The greatest irony in this election is that increased youth turnout embracing human rights, and following a debate around leaders’ ‘terrorist sympathies,’ will likely result in a coalition formed of those with little respect for the rights of minorities and the marginalised.
As a result, many who have a Conservative MP are writing to ask them to protest co-operating with the DUP, and more than 300,000 have signed an online petition against the alliance.