DUP hard line on Brexit is shown to be at odds with supporters’ opinions, as tensions rise between Brexiteers and the Irish

As the days of Brexit reckoning draw near, rising tensions were on show yesterday at a conference held by the think tank  the UK in a Changing Europe to discuss the Queen’s University report and survey, Northern Ireland and the UK’s exit  – what the people think. Differences between Brexiteers and the Irish side were gaping wide. There was no meeting of minds over the UK’s options for withdrawal. A particular test case was over the feasibility of technology to keep the border open.  The lead researcher John Garry made much of the extent of  opposition to an escalating range of border checks.  This was odd as both governments are against them; in the British case they call it  “no new cameras.”

“Impossible to accept” were:

Cameras at ferry ports. 15% Protestants and 16% of Catholics

Customs checks. Catholics 29% and Protestants 28%

Soldiers manning checkpoints.  44% of Protestants and 58% of Catholics

Support for illegal protests 9% of Protestants and 14% of Catholics would support blocking traffic but not more extreme protest. Sinn Fein supporters were more militant.

“Why put these non-existent measures into people’s minds?” asked Graham Gudgin the Brexiteer director of Policy Exchange which has also produced its own report. “Nobody will be stopped at the border.”

The former secretary of state Owen Paterson reacted to the current British- Irish dispute with “utter dismay” but swept aside the very notion of problems on the border.

“Nobody notices the existing cameras on the border. You don’t even need any cameras. You can track with mobile phones and use electronic invoices. This is not a practical problem; it is a political problem. The Commission and the Irish government should stop using the border as a trip wire for the British. Among Conservatives there is huge opposition to the backstop. If it is put into EU law, I don’t see it getting through the Commons. If Brexit is not delivered the cost will be greater than having a row with our nearest neighbour.”

This drew a scathing reply from the Irish academic Brigid Laffan.  “This shows a lack of recognition of the rights of Ireland to look after our own interests. This enrages us.. Ireland’s future is not in the anglosphere, but in the EU and the wider world.”

There was a similar exchange later. Graham Gudgin asked the former Fine Gael taoiseach  John Bruton why  there was a hardening of Irish policy after Varadkar replaced Kenny.

Joint electronic work stopped, civil  service meetings stopped, less contact with Arlene Foster. Why? The calculation was to push the Brits into staying in the customs union and it almost worked.

This drew an explosive – and revealing – reply from the normally mild mannered Bruton.

You should not be surprised if we make it as difficult as possible for you to do things we don’t want you to do,” he bellowed. He said earlier:  “Britain’s decision to leave is deeply hurtful to my country.”   On the Kenny point, “ he was not in office when the critical point was reached.”

Public opinion on Brexit  revealed  the high degree of conditionality in Catholic opinion but rare agreement between Protestants and Catholics for remaining within the customs union.

61% of the population are in favour of the UK as a whole remaining in the customs union and single market and support for this option is 61% among Catholics and 62% among Protestants – virtual parity.

The report author Brendan O’Leary warned that this survey like all such surveys tended to under-report the extremists. The real direction of travel is more extreme than the results suggest. And he told the DUP: “Only 1 in 3 of Protestants support a hard Brexit. The party’s policy does not represent their supporters’ preferences.

Catholics are much more likely to support a united Ireland if there is a ‘hard’ exit in which the UK leaves both the customs union and single market.

28% of Catholics would vote for a united Ireland if the UK changed its mind and remained in the EU while 53% of Catholics would vote for a united Ireland if there was a ‘hard’ exit in which the UK left the customs union and single market.

O’Leary commented that Protestant preferences stayed the same but Catholic opinion was conditional on the outcome. Given Catholic volatility, the DUP would be risking the Union if they go for a hard Brexit. This is reasonable factual advice.”

What accounts for the difference of approach that has contributed to  such confusion over the Brexit negotiations? O’Leary explained it this way.

The UK has a system of parliamentary sovereignty that explains the label ”perfidious Albion.” Any parliament  can unwind any treaty, and you claim the ability to amend. This makes you a fundamentally unreliable partner. I hope you can contextualise  yourselves to make yourselves a more reliable partner

And Bruton:

Current differences are cultural. It is between the British power-based and common law approach versus a rules-based EU the UK doesn’t understand. If these misunderstandings are not faced up to they will continue. Taking back control and equivalence whatever it means, are contradictions.

The most poignant finding in the project came from the deliberative forum of more than 400 people, reported by lead researcher John Garry.

There was a strong sense of a people without a voice, almost like unwanted children. Dublin don’t really want us. London would throw us under a bus. A sense of alienation from both sides.”

Later. 

Anand Menon the director of UK in a Changing Europe writing in the Times agrees that both sides want to use the border to their advantage  as he tries to make sense of the clash of cultures and interests.

From the not-particularly sublime to the ever-more ridiculous. Tempers are fraying and the row over Brexit and the Irish border rumbles on.

The debate is a mixture of  gesture politics and principle. The EU has made great play of its principled stance that “cherry picking” of the best bits of the single market is unacceptable. Her Majesty’s Government, for its part, has pointed to what it sees as a problem with this argument: the Northern Ireland backstop proposed by the EU would be a clear example of such cherry picking: the province would remain only in those parts of the single market necessary to ensuring the functioning of the all-Ireland economy.

Both sides have a point. From the EU’s perspective, there are many reasons why the UK as a whole should not be allowed to pick and choose, not least that many member states are reluctant to give such a big concession to such a large economy.

And lurking behind these justifications is good old-fashioned realpolitik. The EU wants the Irish question solved for principled and practical reasons. The principled ones are well known – the need to save the 20-year-old Good Friday agreement which has brought peace to Northern Ireland. The practical ones relate to its desire not to allow the Irish border issue to spill over into the trade talks, providing London with leverage in its attempts to secure frictionless trade without membership of the customs union and single market.

Viewed from London, the new government initiative on an all-UK backstop not only highlights what is seen in the UK as the EU’s inconsistency (if they can offer the backstop to Northern Ireland, why not to the whole of the UK?.

And so the drama — or farce — continues. And it has profound implications, obviously for the Brexit talks as well but also, as importantly, in that it distracts attention from many of the substantive issues that Brexit raises for the island of Ireland.

In today’s report, The UK in a Changing Europe has analyzed a number of those issues.

Of course, the border is crucial. It encapsulates a number of both constitutional and values-related issues that will prove impossible to solve effectively without some agreement on the border, as Colin Harvey argues.

And assuming my scepticism concerning the Government’s new proposal is well placed, we will eventually go back to the choice detailed by Catherine Barnard, between options that will only be sorted out once the UK has left the EU (A and B), and another (option C) that is unpalatable to the DUP and many in the Conservative Party. The absence of an executive and assembly in Northern Ireland further implies that, even in the event that the UK government decides to ask Stormont for consent to new regulatory barriers between the North and the rest of the UK (as specified in the December joint report signed by the UK and the EU), it is hard to see who they could ask.

Now, clearly there are different opinions as to whether options A and B are practical. Graham Gudgin is one who feels that technology does offer a potential solution. Even if that is the case, however, Professor Barnard’s point about the future and the present holds true. The EU is simply not going to put its faith in promises about future technological developments. So in the short term, the stark choice confronting negotiators remains unchanged. Moreover, membership of the customs union alone would not address the border issue since, as Katy Hayward underlines, regulatory divergence between the UK and Ireland would immediately necessitate a border. This implies staying in the single market, at least for goods.

Politically, the study by Garry, McNicholl, O’Leary and Pow underlines the way that Brexit feeds into the sectarian divide, as well as the broad hostility across both communities towards the idea of a hard border between North and South. As Matt Bevington and Alan Wager explain, this is also roiling the politics of the North, at a time when the moderate centre has already been squeezed.

And the consequences of Brexit will be economic as well as political. As Philip McCann and Raquel Ortega-Argilés point out, almost all the Republic’s exports and imports to and from the rest of the EU pass through the UK. Thus, a hard Brexit will have serious consequences, not least for the agricultural sector.

This of course has implications for the negotiations themselves. While Dublin is — understandably — concerned about the creation of a hard border with the North, the future trading relationship between the UK and the EU is hardly a minor concern for the Irish government. In that sense, they need to ensure not only a border solution but a way of maintaining the dense trading relationship with the UK.

Meanwhile, and away from the negotiations themselves, plenty of changes are afoot, either spawned by the prospect of Brexit or accelerated by the outcome of the June 2016 referendum. Brexit has, according to Brigid Laffan, proven catalytic for the Irish Republic.

Deliberative and consultative processes following the Brexit vote have generated broad societal consensus around Ireland’s EU future. The country’s positioning as a small northern state, within the new “Hanse league”, reinforces Dublin’s self-confidence in its ability to make a success of its EU membership after Brexit.

Whatever the outcome of the Brexit process, the implications will be profound. Whether there is a border or not, the Republic is preparing for a post-Brexit future as an influential, small, English-speaking state in the EU. Meanwhile, the politics and economics of the North will be severely affected by whatever kind of outcome the negotiations produce. The island of Ireland is changing, and Brexit has been a significant cause of that change.

UK in a Changing  Europe intend to video stream  the day’s discussion. 

Brexit: ‘The DUP’s hardline policies could be the quickest road to a united Ireland’” by “Brexit: ‘The DUP’s hardline policies could be the quickest road to a united Ireland’” is licensed under “Brexit: ‘The DUP’s hardline policies could be the quickest road to 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