So it’s really happening. After the general election result stripped the Conservatives of their majority, it was a shock to learn that the government was planning to lean on the Democratic Unionist Party for support. For weeks, it has seemed as though the unexpected alliance might not make it, as talks were strung out, Northern Irish heels dug in, and the Queen’s Speech delayed.
On 26 June, however, it was announced that the Conservative Party and the DUP had finally reached an arrangement. The new deal will see the 10 DUPs support the Tories in essential Commons votes, allowing Theresa May to limp on as the head of a minority government – although a question mark still hangs over whether her leadership will survive a five-year term.
Psychologists have long observed the human tendency to ‘normalise’ unexpected or unwanted events. According to Harvard and Yale academics, our individual understanding of what is ‘normal’ (a blend of what we expect to happen, and what we hope will happen) shifts and changes with the world around us.
In the UK, we’ve already seen a process of normalisation take hold since the general election. The prospect of a Tory government propped up by the arch-conservative, anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, creationist DUP would have been unthinkable before 8 June, but soon enough – if it doesn’t already – it will start to seem quite ordinary.
But Francesca Waters wants to remind us that none of this is normal. The 25-year-old former secondary school teacher from Hertfordshire is the force behind a major petition to stop the DUP’s more regressive beliefs seeping into the UK government policy, and she believes that we can’t afford to get complacent.
LGBTQ issues, abortion rights and environmental legislation were reportedly not up for debate during the Conservatives’ talks with the DUP, but – while May has offered private assurances on gay marriage to Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson – she has yet to make any public promises. Waters, who works for an educational charity in London and is gay herself, wants the prime minister to pledge that progressive politics will never be compromised as a result of the deal with the DUP.
Here, Waters explains why we can’t take our eyes off the ball when it comes to the Democratic Unionist Party.
Why did you decide that you needed to start a campaign against the DUP?
I started the petition on the 38 Degrees website as I was concerned with the Conservative government’s position. There was a possibility that they may submit to the DUP’s hardline conservative stance on important issues like same-sex marriage, the right to abortion and action on climate change.
Women and LGBT individuals are people who have worked so hard to achieve the rights that they have today, and these shouldn’t be used as bargaining chips within talks just to achieve a majority.
The DUP’s party leader Arlene Foster has said that LGBT people will not influence her by sending her abuse, so I thought I would start a peaceful petition to voice the concerns that are currently shared by many of the British public. Within hours thousands of people signed up, and we’re now on our way to 200,000 signatures, so it was really amazing to see.
Did you know much about the DUP before the election?
I knew some bits, but I wasn’t aware of how hardline some of the MPs’ views were. You have [DUP MP for North Antrim] Ian Paisley Jr, who said he was repulsed by gay people and that they harmed society. That’s a viewpoint that he’s just refused to change.
Then you have former health minister Jim Wells, who stated that children born in homosexual families are more likely to be abused and neglected, which is completely not true. Those views don’t have a place in progressive British politics. [Wells later apologised for his comments.]
Would you have felt more secure if the Conservatives had won a secure majority?
I think obviously [the Conservatives] say that they are a party of equal marriage and equality. I don’t always necessarily see that as being true, but I’m more concerned with the DUP as their views are very explicit.
We just have to make sure that we don’t step backwards on LGBT rights and women’s right to choose. I would still be concerned by a Conservative majority because of my own political leanings, but I wouldn’t challenge it so much as they would have won a popular vote.
Read more: What actually is a minority government?
How likely do you think it is that the DUP will actually try and influence areas like LGBTQ and abortion rights and climate change policy? It looks as though their main focus has been securing more funding for Northern Ireland.
It’s really hard to say. You’d hope that these issues wouldn’t be used within discussions, but there’s no harm in making our voices heard and repeating the message that we’re concerned.
I just don’t see why there hasn’t been categorical assurance that talks with the DUP won’t result in going backwards for LGBT rights. I’m not sure why [the government] can’t give that [publicly].
I know there are other issues which some people might see as more important, but we have to make sure that everybody – including minority groups – is listened to.
Is the goal of your petition to get the Conservatives to state categorically that they won’t allow the DUP to influence these areas?
Yes, I think so. It’s a stance that’s backed by some [Tory] MPs – Ruth Davidson in particular feels very strongly about it. [Britain is] a really progressive society, we promote equality, and these [rights] aren’t things that we should just give up. They’re things we should be proud of and really push for.
Whatever happens next, thanks to the petition I know there are hundreds of thousands of people who really care about these issues. All people from all party lines have signed it; it’s like a huge opinion poll. Politicians can’t ignore it.
Do you think a deal between the DUP and the Tories is actually sustainable?
It’s really hard to say at the moment because politics is so tumultuous, but I can’t imagine so. The reason I think that is if you actually add up all the votes, there are more [people in favour of] more progressive politics.
I don’t think this hardline right vision that’s being set out is what everyone wants. The government is going to have to let left-leaning ideas come through, or I don’t think they’ll be able to sustain it.
Images: Rex Features / Francesca Waters