#Brexit: the DUP and the Risks of Not Passing Go

The DUP torpedoed today’s sensible UK-EU compromise deal on the border because, according to an Arlene Foster tweet, the party could not accept any deal which separates Northern Ireland politically from the rest of the UK. This will come as a great surprise to campaigners for marriage equality, liberalisation of the abortion laws, and comprehensive education.

There is no great Unionist point of principle against the terms of what was on the table in Brussels earlier today, except on the part a few integrationists who have long since disappeared into the political wilderness, like Bob McCartney.

Of course, throwing a last minute hissy fit, just negotiations seem to be coming to a conclusion, is a classic tactic, in Brussels as much as in Northern Ireland. The DUP may well have reckoned that, with Theresa May entirely dependent on them to remain in office, they’d be mad not to hold out for some concessions. At the end of the day, they’ve only done what the Walloons did at even later stage of the Canada-EU Trade Agreement negotiations.

This is a risky tactic from the DUP, nonetheless. Negotiations often blow past deadlines, but the December deadline became acute in these negotiations because businesses are well into their 2019 planning cycles already. Without some realistic steer on what UK-EU trading arrangements will be in place then, businesses will have to start working on the worst possible scenario. Much attention is focused on international, globalised, businesses that have been such a part of the British economic model for the past 30-odd years.

Agriculture, however, might be even worse hit, with its inherently long investment cycles and depth of weather-related risk. My contacts in this part of England tell me smaller and more marginal farmers, more dependent on EU subsidies, are already struggling to secure finance until there is more clarity about their prospects of repayment. Real livelihoods and real lives are imperilled by needless games of high politics.

On one level, it’s hard not to feel sorry for May, but she seems incapable of learning that it’s foolish  to assume the DUP will sign on to something just because it seems logical from a Tory point of view. The way the DUP left her twisting in the wind today was practically a rerun of general election night.

More generally, the lack of negotiating skill on the UK side of these negotiations has been startling, not least because the UK, not least in the part of an UKREP much maligned in the right-wing press, was historically able to consistently get a good deal at the Brussels negotiating table. Of course, there’s a price to be paid when you decide that you’ve had enough of experts.

More subtly, it’s hard to see where the long-term gain is for the DUP, and more significantly for the cause of the Union in Northern Ireland. If these proposals aren’t acceptable to the DUP, what would be? Today’s proposals would have allowed Northern Ireland to, uniquely, surf on the edge of the EU while remaining in the UK, perhaps even offering a bolthole to high value added City of London businesses looking to retain the advantages of UK regulation and Common Law, along with EU passporting and clearance rights. With creative leadership, perhaps from outside politics, Northern Ireland could even have found a means of kickstarting a desperately underperforming economy.

In contrast, the harder the border, the larger the group of moderates it will annoy, and not just moderates who might be classified as being from ‘the Nationalist community’. At the turn of the decade, the Union looked secure for several generations; now it’s not hard to envisage a United Ireland arriving by the early 2030s, if Brexit in practice is as badly handled by Westminster governments as the negotiations to bring it about have been.

I recently rewatched the BBC documentary series The Death of Yugoslavia after almost two decades. One haunting event was that on 18 March 1992 the leaders of the three ethnic factions signed an agreement to divide Bosnia-Herzegovina into 12 ethnic cantons; not ideal from a liberal purist’s point of view, but it’s what came about after the end of a truly ghastly civil war anyway. 10 days later, after a meeting with the American ambassador, the Bosnian Muslim leader Alia Izetbegovic withdrew his signature. War broke out by 6 April.

I’m not suggesting Bosnian-style horrors await us, although while paramilitarism remains such a part of Northern Ireland’s present, let alone its past, none of us should be complacent. My point is rather that sometimes a better deal doesn’t exist. Those who reject something on the table might have to learn the hard way that they end up agreeing to it in the end but only after losing much else. Like Sunningdale and the St Andrew’s Agreement.

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  • Paul Hagan

    That death of Yugoslavia series is really amazing, chilling but really hard to forget.

  • aquifer

    There has been regulatory divergence since 1922, England has always held NI at arms’ length. Somebody needs to wise up. Clue: it’s not the paramilitary wise guys waiting in the wings for their new Christmas Brexmax border toy set.

  • Sub

    Is it available online?

  • StephenP

    I agree with the comment regarding the potential benefit of N.Ireland gaining from the proposed solution. However this is a few times I have read the statement regarding the chances of violence if we don’t do what nationalists or the Irish government want. If unionists or loyalists made those threats there would be uproar amongst nationalists and politicians and rightly so.

    Can we please get past the idea if one group does not get their way then there will be a threat in the background (or in this case genocide). It’s a poor argument and does not help.

  • Gerry Lynch

    I am for eradicating all paramilitarism from whatever quarter from the entire island of Ireland for all time. There was never any justification for it and there never will be.

    Clear enough for you?

  • Obelisk

    I know it’s cliche at this point but the DUP have done more reunification in eighteen months than the Republican movement managed in thirty years.

    They are going out of their way to antagonise Nationalists on every conceivable front, even the moderates who up to eighteen months ago were ‘ok’ with the Union.

    And they refuse to take any compromise that could repair some of the damage their actions have actually caused to the Union, especially in mitigating Brexit.

    Their inability to compromise on anything is going to rebound on them one day in spectacular fashion and I will take a measure of pleasure on that day, I will not lie.

    Yet for the moment we are in the middle of them APPLYING that appalling damage. They have to be sidelined to get through this insanity.

  • Gerry Lynch

    Follow the hot text in the post.

  • Cory Kelly

    The last sting of a dying bee is apparently the most painful. Let them have this moment. The deal is done, by Friday it will be all over.

  • Obelisk

    I wish I shared your confidence.

    We know the DUP. They will not break under any circumstances. They would rather the entire UK crashed out than they compromised.

  • Cory Kelly

    Thats the sheer beauty of it. The tories are calling their bluff.

  • NotNowJohnny

    Oh they’ll break all right. Just give it time. They’ll sign up to anything once they’ve convinced their electorate that they won’t sign up. It was ever thus.

  • But what leverage do the DUP really have? Bring down the government and herald a new election which brings Corbyn into No.10. They could even lose 2 seats in Belfast.

  • Obelisk

    We said that before whatever leverage they had proved to be enough.

  • Zorin001

    It’s pretty much Cold War era M.A.D. in action, the DUP have the nuclear button but its best use is as a deterrent. You can fire it once and then it’s game over.

    Unfortunately, like most Cold War brinkmanship, overplay your hand and you have WW3. All sides best not push too far lest one of them decides they’ve nothing left to lose.

  • Jim M

    Good article. I’m not looking forward to the next few years.

  • ‘island man

    The DUP definitely wouldn’t make very good poker players. One look at those faces on the TV today and you could see they have a bad hand. Could a U turn be tomorrows headlines, or will the stubbornness that they’re known all too well for prevail?

  • NotNowJohnny

    Regulatory divergence is such a fundamental and obvious part of the union with Great Britain that no one ever needed to invent the term regulatory divergence until today. There was never anything but regulatory divergence and never intended to be anything but regulatory divergence between here and Great Britain since the United Kingdom was formed. Unionists promoting the myth that it has been otherwise either fail to understand the nature of the UK or are engaged in an act of wishful thinking. Or both. I even heard the hard Brexiteer Rees-Mogg claiming yesterday that Northern Ireland was no different than Sussex and demanding they both be treated the same, seemingly ignorant of the fact that the only thing that has ever created regulatory harmony within the UK has been ….. wait for it …. the European Union. You couldn’t make it up.

  • lizmcneill

    Predictions are not the same as threats.

  • StephenP

    Liz you are predicting that if Brexit does not happen the way the Irish government want then we will have murder on our streets again? So much for the GFA. Principle of consent gone out the window.

  • NotNowJohnny

    The principle of consent has not gone out the window. The principle of consent can’t go out the window. Indeed the Irish government has reiterated that over and over again during the past few days. Why are you promoting the myth that the principle of consent has gone out the window anyway?

  • Zorin001

    Is it possible that a Foster indicated in private to May that she could accept this agreement only to have to backtrack in public when the the Hardline wing of the DUP said no?

    Either May has made a second very stupid gamble to move without cast iron assurances or else she thought she had them and they have been withdrawn at the 11th hour.

    I think this will be a very rapidly developing news week.

  • lizmcneill

    The dissident eejits didn’t sign up to the GFA.

  • StephenP

    I’m really not. I am against the fact that people have different viewing in brexit. I don’t want it personally. However I have read people on Slugger and further afield telling us that if things are not kept the way they are or if there are any custom tariffs there will be another war from Republicans. Wise up people signed up to the GFA, until the people want change in jurisdiction then we all agreed to peace and to move on. No wonder this place never gets better when you hear threats or predictions as Liz called them. Either you are against violence or you are not. I don’t see support for a return to violence so why make that argument. If there is support just. Because if brexit then that suggests people are not truly ready for any form of compromise as it’s their way or no way.

  • StephenP

    Agreed but that now means they dictate what we do as a society in case they try to escalate things? What do you do when the loyalists come out and threaten the same if they don’t get what they want? A shout I said it’s a crap argument discuss the politics of the matter not use the threat of violence to suggest why people should do one thing over another. Otherwise we will all go back 20/30 years and then what hope

  • Summerfell

    “The DUP torpedoed today’s sensible UK-EU compromise deal on the border because, according to an Arlene Foster tweet, the party could not accept any deal which separates Northern Ireland politically from the rest of the UK. This will come as a great surprise to campaigners for marriage equality, liberalisation of the abortion laws, and comprehensive education.”

    Yes, yes, yes, a million times yes.

  • John

    I am unaware of the exact details of where yesterdays’ discussions concluded. Perhaps you can supply a link to the relevant document.

  • Barneyt

    What is the immediate dependency on the DUP? I know they have the ability to trigger an election, but surely the impact is not immediate enough and the agreement could push through without them? The Tory position is precarious anyhow and the DUP has them over a barrel, which has been beautifully articulated just yesterday. Its a confidence and supply, not a coalition and they could limp on as a minority government, especially if their is wider support for this agreement?

  • Barneyt

    I think some are predicting violence but lie in hope they are wrong. I have heard many talk about giving souccour to the dissidents, but they are merely identifying how they may react to a hard border and its policing in many cases. Its the same with loyalist violence, however I do not always detect it as merely a prediction.

  • Bob of Bonsall

    Well done the DUP. They’re actions show Teresa May as the appeasing Quisling she really is.
    The answer is simple. The UK is leaving the EU and we fail to see the need for a hard border between the two parts of Ireland. If the EU wish to impose such a border, fair enough, their choice, they impose it and they pay for it.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “The DUP torpedoed today’s sensible UK-EU compromise deal on the border because, according to an Arlene Foster tweet, the party could not accept any deal which separates Northern Ireland politically from the rest of the UK.”
    No, that’s misinterpreting her as you may well know. She was referring to the particular arrangements proposed over regulatory convergence that would leave a customs / trade barrier at the Irish Sea; and which had one form of Brexit for NI and a potentially substantially different one for the rest of the country. It is not unreasonable to object, if you aren’t keen on internal UK trade barriers, or any barriers at all within the UK.

    The big question for all supporting yesterday’s wording is: and what about the sea border??? No one seems to want to address the problems it presents. The approach seems to be to ignore the issue and hope no one says anything. Well, I’m saying something …

  • MainlandUlsterman

    if Corbyn re-sets Brexit though and goes for customs union and single market – remember he is very pro-free movement of people which was the big perceived barrier to those for the UK – it’s a result for unionists in N Ireland. The border goes away again as an issue, the UK gets back to its old happier self again … and there’s a limited amount Corbyn can do to mess up N Ireland, as his hands are tied by the GFA and unionists have a veto.

    So while I despise Corbyn for his unwithdrawn support for the Republican terror campaign that blighted all our lives, bring him on if it means we get customs union and single market. Bonus is we’d actually have a half chance of getting the economy moving too, with a bit of Keynes, as long as he winds his neck in and listens to some of the better economists Labour has at its disposal.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Eh? Any evidence for this belief?

    You’re really genuinely convinced the DUP are bluffing about not wanting a sea border? Seriously?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    You think the DUP are bluffing? Sorry, I just spat out some of my lunch … you really need to acquaint yourself with unionists a bit more, it seems 🙂

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “However this is a few times I have read the statement regarding the chances of violence if we don’t do what nationalists or the Irish government want. If unionists or loyalists made those threats there would be uproar amongst nationalists and politicians and rightly so.”
    It was ever thus. And yes it is an absolute disgrace and unfortunately an increasing feature of this debate. Old habits die hard, but really we’ve not putting up with threats of violence any more. The Mitchell Principles ended that, let’s stick to them.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Aren’t they though? Obviously depends on the wording but it’s at best sailing close to the wind. I think when you do talk about something increasing the chances of violence, it’s a threat unless you make it clear any violence resulting would be 100 per cent the fault of the person doing the violence and no blame whatsover would attach to the non-violent person who ‘provoked’ it.

    The Mitchell Principles are so, so important to N Ireland democracy and the GFA settlement:
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b8c8a5dc5305bac62dd0427ac4b7b070090fad1f74436ca33a9c16b091d11292.png

  • MainlandUlsterman

    and we are honour bound to not let them influence our decisions one iota.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    great points Stephen, well said – and needs saying over and over again just now

  • lizmcneill

    Easy to say when you’ve left NI and aren’t in the firing zone.

  • lizmcneill

    The UK currently has drink taken and is telling the local heavy “G’wan g’wan, if you think you’re hard enough!” It’ll be 100% the local heavy’s fault when the UK gets glassed in the face, but they should still stop doing that.

  • NotNowJohnny

    My evidence is that despite what they said previously they went into government with an ex IRA volunteer (and an ‘unrepentant’ one at that) jointly at the helm.

    My questions to you are (a) did the proposals yesterday constitute the creation of a sea border and (b) if they did then what changes would be required to be made in to them to result in them no longer constituting a sea border?