Brexit ‘s revival of the spectre of a hard border and the support of Ireland’s partners for a united Ireland with consent within the EU was the perfect formula for the complete polarisation that has duly happened at Westminster level.
Nationalism is now without representation at Westminster for the first time since 1966. The SDLP’s special pleading for an anti-Brexit pact failed and their attack on Sinn Fein for abstaining from Westminster as if it was a new idea left the voters unmoved. Now that so many voters have abandoned the centre ground in the sudden death Westminster election, perhaps the opposite poles can now do a Stormont deal without looking over their shoulders.
Deals in the Westminster context are just as tricky and can have unintended consequences.
What sort of deal do the DUP want at Westminster now that NI MPs are in their strongest bargaining position since the Labour government of 1974-79.when the UUs won five extra seats for Northern Ireland?
By 1987 an unintended consequence of the deal was the benefit to the SDLP of 3 seats boosted by the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 so loathed by Unionists. It left them banging their heads against the wall with frustration when they found the writ of the famous veto didn’t run that far. Dublin was keen on the extra seats as they gave the SDLP a platform against SF encroachment. The agreement also put the moribund 1982 Assembly which the SDLP had boycotted out of its misery.
This time DUP statesmanship and self interest can come together. “A frictionless “ border is not in the gift of the British government or the Irish government alone. As the EU negotiator Michel Barnier reminded everybody any form of special treatment for Ireland means customs controls. A softening of British terms for Northern Ireland at least if not the whole UK would mitigate border problems mightily, underpinned by free movement within the British Isles.
The DUP must now require a minority Conservative government to apply for the special status of membership of the single market. With the monopoly of the SNP broken, the Scots can do likewise with cross party support. The Scottish government and the NI Executive should demand the partnership role in the negotiations that Theresa May refused in another era.
The DUP are in a unique position to make the demand effective. Sinn Fein would find it difficult if not impossible to keep resisting a return to the Assembly.
The crucial initiative would be the DUP’s. And remember , the softer the border, the softer the support for a border poll and a united Ireland.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London