Brexit, GFA Mark II & the DUP’s tricky situation

The deal is done, the Conservative Party cabinet members have parted ways and the identity of the Leave campaign leadership in Britain has become clear (Boris apart.)

But, locally, the political breakdown of the differing factions has been known for quite some time, and bears an uncanny resemblance to how things panned out in the Spring of 1998.

Then, for the Good Friday Agreement referendum, the DUP stood alone in leading the No campaign, albeit with the sympathies of many in the Ulster Unionist Party who would later go on to defect (and lead) the DUP.

Standing against the DUP was the combined leadership of northern nationalism in the form of Sinn Fein and the SDLP, as well as the ‘centre’ ground -including the Alliance Party- with the larger faction of the Ulster Unionist Party and the voices of loyalist paramilitarism, all cheered on and supported by the southern Irish political establishment, British government and indeed American government.

How things change, er, stay the same…..

It is clear that the Leave campaign will be championed in the north by the DUP and Jim Allister (and Theresa Villiers no less), whilst the position of both nationalist parties has been clear throughout- and, indeed, that of the Irish Government.…and a significant figure in the American political sphere. Even Billy Hutchinson has been out to proclaim his support for the Stay campaign.

Another point of interest during the past few months has been the almost indecent haste with which the DUP MPs have moved to position the party firmly in the Leave campaign when it appeared that Arlene Foster clearly preferred a more nuanced approach, seeking to buy more time to see what David Cameron’s final package of reforms would look like before declaring for the Leave campaign. In that, there is an indication as to where fault lines lie within the DUP which, in the event of electoral or political difficulties for the new leader arising in the future, will become more obvious and pronounced.

Intriguingly, the one-time significant DUP figure and now Chief Executive of Invest NI, Alastair Hamilton, certainly gave the impression in a rare BBC interview on The View this week that the task of attracting business interests into Northern Ireland was an easier one if the campaign to leave the EU was unsuccessful. Taken together with opinions expressed by senior figures in the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) and Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in Northern Ireland, this suggests that the DUP may find itself vulnerable to the charge of taking risks with the interests of local businesses and the agriculture community.

Perhaps that was playing on Arlene’s mind when she – unconvincingly – declared the party’s support for the Leave campaign today.

Alas, her fellow DUP MLA, Paul Givan, showed no such signs of hesitation when he tweeted “It’s time to take back our country” while linking the tweet to the DUP announcement, a tweet he clearly later regretted because he subsequently deleted it.

Months of campaigning will follow, but it’s hard to see any outcome locally that doesn’t reflect the decisive result returned in 1998.

Stay will be the clear winner in the north, claiming a landslide victory within nationalism and the ‘middle ground,’ as well as a sizeable section of the unionist vote.

Indeed it will be interesting to see if the final percentage breakdown exceeds the 71% figure obtained by the Yes campaign in 1998. Anything less than 29-30% for the DUP-led Brexit campaign could be interpreted as the DUP losing ground within unionism, and it is this which may have convinced Ulster Unionist Party leader, Mike Nesbitt, to clearly infer in recent weeks that his party may opt to oppose Brexit, hoping to capitalise and build on any momentum developed in the Assembly elections which will precede the poll by only a matter of weeks.