Theresa May’s general election gamble has seen a little-thought-of and highly controversial party thrust into the spotlight: Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Having failed to gain enough seats to form a majority the Conservative Party has turned to the DUP, which won 10 seats, to create an alliance and give the Tories the ability to govern as a minority.
While the two parties are said to still be “in discussions” over a possible agreement, the decision to try and strike a deal has seen hundreds of protesters descend on Westminster due to the DUP’s stance on abortion, gay rights and climate change. Already more than 500,000 people have signed a petition condemning the Tory-DUP alliance.
The DUP until now hasn’t garnered much attention in the British press but the party has a long history of science denial.
It is a most unusual party for a number of reasons, including its well-documented links to Protestant paramilitary groups and dark money links to the Saudi Arabian intelligence service.
Socially regressive, it has blocked the legalisation of abortion and gay marriage in Northern Ireland and is seen as openly hostile to the LGBT community, as well as being the only political party in Ireland to support Brexit.
On science issues, its nearest political equivalent would be the Trump administration in the US. A survey among DUP members found that 40 per cent believed creationism should be taught in science classrooms.
Mervyn Storey, chair of the DUP’s education committee, is also a member of the Caleb Foundation, a Christian fundamentalist creationist pressure group. Its lobbying led the National Trust to controversially include a ‘younger Earth’ version of the origins of the Giant’s Causeway at its visitor centre. The Caleb Foundation has also formally objected to museums depicting evolution as an accepted fact.
Largely thanks to DUP lobbying, Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK with no legally binding climate change targets in place.
Last December, then environment minister, the DUP’s Michelle McIlveen, quashed efforts to introduce a Northern Ireland Climate Change Act. The Social Democratic and Labour Party’s Mark Durkan described Northern Ireland’s failure to enact climate change laws – due to a lack of political consensus and obstruction by the DUP – as an “embarrassment”.
The DUP’s 2017 election manifesto contained not a single mention of the terms “climate change”, “global warming” or “environment”. The manifesto talks in general terms about the need for a “secure and sustainable energy supply for Northern Ireland”, with the focus on interconnection and development of new generation capacity, but with no indication given of the source of this new energy, other than a welcome for “recent planning applications for new power stations” – a clear signal that it remains firmly wedded to fossil fuels.
Despite its generally hostile approach to its immediate neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, the DUP’s election manifesto suggests that, at least regarding electricity, it is not entirely isolationist. Instead it favours the development of an all-island integrated single electricity market as well as the North-South Interconnector.
Perhaps the DUP’s most controversial figure on climate change is former environment minister, Sammy Wilson.
Among his more bizarre actions was to place a ban on UK government TV and radio adverts that were encouraging people to cut their carbon emissions. Wilson described the ads as insidious green propaganda.
Wilson believes the ideas of man-made climate change is a “gigantic con” and an “hysterical semi-religion” and denies that there is a scientific consensus on the causes of climate change.
In 2014, Wilson organised a meeting in the House of Commons in central London on behalf of “Repeal the Act”, a group that argues the “climate is always changing” and seeks to repeal the UK’s Climate Change Act. In attendance were known climate science deniers Peter Lilley, David Davies and Richard Tol.
And back in 2010 Wilson hosted a group of climate science deniers at the Palace of Westminster for “Climate Fools Day”. The event was supported by Labour MP and now Global Warming Policy Foundation member Graham Stringer. One of the event invites read: “The danger is not Climate Change but Climate Change Policy – for which there is no evidence in justification.”
More recently, Wilson, the newly returned MP for East Antrim, welcomed Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord on climate change as “very wise”.
He described the climate deal as “totally flawed and pointless”, going on to argue that “pulling out of the (Paris) agreement, which was only a piece of window dressing for climate chancers who wished to pretend that they were doing something about an issue which they can’t affect anyhow, is not the disaster which the green lefties are getting hysterical about”.
Wilson brings similar levels of enlightenment to his views on LGBT people. “They are poofs. I don’t care if they are ratepayers. As far as I’m concerned, they are perverts”, he said in response to a request by gay rights activists to hold an event in Belfast’s City Hall in 1992.
For a region of the United Kingdom seen as indifferent, even hostile, to climate or environmental regulations, it is hugely ironic that the political crisis that led to the collapse earlier this year of Northern Ireland’s devolved government should have been triggered by a “green energy” scheme overseen by the Democratic Unionist Party.
The devolved government involved an uneasy partnership between nationalist and unionist parties, including the DUP and its bitter rival, Sinn Féin. It collapsed last March when Sinn Féin leader, the late Martin McGuinness, called for DUP leader, Arlene Foster, to resign over her role in the cash-for-ash affair.
The so-called cash-for-ash controversy involved a botched government renewable heat incentive scheme, introduced in November 2012, and run by the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment .
DUP leader Arlene Foster was the responsible minister at the time. The non-domestic element of the scheme was designed to encourage firms, businesses and farmers to switch from fossil fuel heating to biomass systems such as wood-burning boilers.
However, its ham-fisted implementation and complete absence of cost controls created perverse incentives whereby for every £1 a business spent on fuel, it received a government subsidy of £1.60. This quickly escalated into a massive scam, where furnaces were burning fuel around the clock in sheds with the windows and doors wide open.
The final cost to the taxpayer for this fiasco is expected to be upwards of £400 million.
DUP leader Arlene Foster’s reported behaviour towards her party colleague, Jonathan Bell, when he tried to shut the scheme down may be instructive on how she approaches talks with Theresa May. “She was hostile and abusive…she walked in and shouted at me that I would keep this scheme open,” claimed Bell. Foster subsequently survived a no-confidence vote.
As the shockingly old-fashioned stances of Theresa May’s new partners in government on a range of scientific, social and political issues illustrate, there is more than a grain of truth in the old joke about the captain on a flight about to land in Northern Ireland announcing to passengers: “Ladies and gentlemen, we will shortly be touching down in Belfast. Please put your watches back 300 years”.