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.