DUP threaten to break the Confidence and Supply Agreement

On Friday, on Twitter, DUP East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson referred to a News Letter article concerning the ongoing state of brexit negotiations and said the following :

If [Theresa May] is rolling back on her pledge that there will be no barriers between NI and GB, then the Prime Minister should be under no illusions; we will vote against her deal and it will go nowhere.

This prompted me to check the Confidence and Supply Agreement, the text of which is available online here. The salient section reads :

In line with the parties’ shared priorities for negotiating a successful exit from the European Union [..], the DUP also agrees to support the government on legislation pertaining to the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union

This seems unambiguous. If the DUP either abstain or vote against any legislation relating to the UK’s departure from the EU, they are in violation of an agreement they put their signature to less than two years ago.

I thought the DUP might attempt to justify a decision like this on the basis of boilerplate text within the Agreement surrounding Northern Ireland’s status as a part of the UK. The only relevant phrase I could find was :

The Conservative Party will never countenance any constitutional arrangements that are incompatible with the consent principle.

It’s unclear which “consent principle” is being referred to, but as I understand it, it is most likely to refer to long-standing UK Government policy that any change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland can take effect only with the consent of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. This principle is a cornerstone of Ulster Unionism and forms an integral part of the Good Friday Agreement.

But most people in the UK will have difficulty understanding, much less sympathising, how implementing additional customs or other checks between Northern Ireland and the UK could amount to an alteration of NI’s constitutional position. This is not least because there is precedent for it. In one of his finer moments, Ian Paisley MP MEP successfully argued, alongside others, for Northern Ireland to be treated separately from the rest of the UK in certain key agricultural areas, protecting Northern Ireland farmers from the effects of European bans on British agricultural produce. Despite his reputation for being uncompromising on the Union and as a bitter opponent of the EU, he knew he couldn’t let farmers go to the wall for the sake of appearances. In the end he won for himself and the DUP a reputation as a fearless protector of agriculture and farming.

A while back, I wrote here on Slugger about how, during World War 2, travel between Northern Ireland and GB was subject to security and identity checks. This happened because it was more practical for the UK to monitor travel to and from a neutral country that way rather than try to police the border. This practice continued for some years after the conclusion of the war and drew complaints in Parliament at the time.

The immediate impact of the DUP voting in a way which clearly breaks the confidence and supply agreement could be the nullification of that agreement, which one presumes would lead immediately to the withdrawal of the promised £1bn (very little of which has so far actually been spent) and the end of the other commitments within the document. Correspondingly, of course, it would end the DUP’s commitment to keep Theresa May in power, although the DUP will then have to resolve the issue of whether or not an early general election should take place. But overall this would be a humiliating failure at the end of a brief period during which the DUP’s Westminster group made valiant efforts to move the centre of political gravity towards London and away from Belfast.

The longer term impact is more subtle, but possibly more profound. Violating this agreement with the Conservatives will make it more difficult for other parties in future to trust the DUP if this kind of hung parliament scenario ever arises again, counter to the DUP’s “more seats, more votes, more influence” mantra. Embarrassingly, it may even serve to confirm Sinn Féin’s characterisation of the party as one which refuses to uphold the agreements it signs.

The DUP were approached for comment but had not responded by the time of publication.