The DUP made little difference to the withdrawal agreement. And now they are only 10 among May’s many critics

The DUP have already started to polish up their narrative of victimhood.  Ian Paisley jr has been recalling his Dad’s roars of “Never, Never, Never,” at Thatcher’s betrayal of unionism in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. The Brits have done it again! The Shinners were right all along.

“Back then we were on the edge of the union, there were major atrocities ongoing and all of that was feeding into the mood. We also didn’t have the political engagement we have had over the last 15 years, the IRA were the IRA then, things were black and white, with the emergence of Sinn Féin that changed things in terms of political engagement.

“However, I do think in terms of relations with the Republic of Ireland we are in similar territory, largely because Leo Varadkar has changed the dynamic, he has ostracised and angered unionists to a similar level.

“Enda Kenny forged positive relationships, Leo and (Simon) Coveney (Tánaiste) on the other hand have managed to create angst, and that wasn’t and hasn’t been the case for many years.

“That makes it similar politically, in that Dublin is acting as the enemy instead of a passive neighbour, but we must always remember this is a political crisis not a security one which is what we had back then.

But glee at the DUPs discomfiture should be resisted. Paisley jr had the grace to acknowledge differences.

The DUP didn’t ask to hold the balance of power; and when they did, the script was already mainly written. Their exposed position encouraged  a false sense of security. But behind the veneer of confidence, they had their suspicions from the moment Arlene Foster hauled Mrs May out of a lunch with Commission president Juncker to approve the first draft of what became the backstop and required her to insert “no border in the Irish Sea.”

Undoubtedly, the DUP won tactical victories. Would the insistence of no border in the Irish Sea have been quite so effusive without them?

Today they appear to have strength in numbers among the unholy alliance that is the massed ranks of May’s critics. But those very numbers mean that their edge has lost its sharpness. Who can identify the real assassin if so many are willing to plunge in the dagger?

In the marathon three hour battering Theresa May took in the Commons today, the DUP spoke more in sorrow than in anger – nothing like their old lord and master. The exchanges show how the prime minister and the DUP have been talking past each other. They spoke as if they knew that by their own standards they‘d failed and half expected to.

Sammy Wilson DUP

The Northern Ireland protocols make it clear that Northern Ireland will stay under EU single market law and will also be economically separated from the rest of the United Kingdom. Articles 7, 9 and 12 show that, even if the EU allows the UK to leave the single market, Northern Ireland will remain under single market arrangements, and any border down the Irish sea will be subject to the willingness of the EU to allow that to be avoided. How can the Prime Minister give us an assurance that Northern Ireland will not be constitutionally separated from the United Kingdom and economically separated from GB? Or is this not a case of Northern Ireland being put on a platter and abject surrender to the EU?

The Prime Minister

No, that is not the case. Throughout this discussion and these negotiations, the interests of Northern Ireland have been one of the key issues that we have put at the forefront of our mind, because of the particular geographical circumstances of Northern Ireland and its land border with Ireland. Northern Ireland will leave the single market with the whole of the United Kingdsom. There will be specific regulatory alignment, which I recognise is uncomfortable. It will be in that portion of the single market acquis that relates to matters that ensure that a frictionless border can take place between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are already some regulatory differences between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There is a question in the future, which I know has raised a concern, as to whether there will be regulatory divergence between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in relation to that issue—because we are talking about a temporary period—of no regulatory divergence. The checks and controls actually relate to the degree of regulatory divergence, so if there is no regulatory divergence, obviously, that has an impact on reducing the necessity for any checks and controls. Crucially, the EU wanted to say that it would determine whether a good that was produced in Birmingham could be sold in Belfast. We were very clear that the EU could not determine that in the future. It will be the UK Government who make those determinations.

Hard to follow, isn’t it? This is the kind of nuance the DUP refuse to take in. She’s saying the less the regulation the harder the border, adding that there will be no disruption to trade in either direction across the Irish Sea. Is this really the slippery slope to Dublin rule? Should we not wait and see and complain if need be to the new oversight body?

If the DUP had never existed the  draft withdrawal agreement  would have been much the same. In truth whatever outcome is finally reached, there will always be pressure to avoid a physical  border  between the UK’s only land frontier and the EU.  And it is a basic error to assume the pressure comes only from the south.

Now they are looking a No Deal in the face that would guarantee new barriers no one wants by next March and risk serious damage to the whole island.

Apart from no Brexit, the practical alternative is to make the common customs area and regulatory alignment within the island a success and revive the moribund relationships of the Good Friday Agreement. If the DUP refuse the opportunity, the two governments should fulfil the pledges in the Withdrawal Agreement and do so themselves.

What do the DUP hope to rescue out of the present mess? We can hear a note of caution in their condemnation of the prime minister.  But the argument that a hard Brexit need not mean a hard border was lost a long time ago. Do they really believe they can muster the ranks for one last heave under her or  another Tory leader?

There will be mixed feelings at Westminster if the confidence and supply pact really does come to an end.  When it was concluded, many rank and file Conservatives felt a certain fastidious distaste  at the idea of dependence on what they regarded as reactionary “backwoodsmen” in the old term of  1912, whose idea of the Union was very different from theirs. Although  usually personally courteous, the DUP were never thought of as ” one of us.” I remember  being invited to an end of session DUP party for lobby journalists to find myself the only person present. These are Tea Party unionists who had no chance of dictating  events.

The essential difference between the cause and its advocates  was only  emphasised by their outright opposition to abortion and same sex marriage when an ad hoc cross party coalition of women MPs  rode to the rescue  to recognise a distinction between the  people of Northern Ireland and its representatives, a distinction which of course  includes the absent Sinn Fein.  Pact or no pact, that distinction has been maintained over defending the “precious Union.”  In this arena Northern Ireland has  been treated generously in spite of, rather than because of, the people they elect.

It’s a fallacy to suppose that there’s no such thing as gratitude in politics. When the dust has settled, the majority in the Commons that eventually emerges may ask themselves – why were the DUP  so ungrateful  when we’d gone through the contortions of an all- UK barebones customs arrangement whether it survives or not, in order to protect Northern Ireland’s position  in the Union? Not entirely fair and not the whole story. But a little acknowledgment and graciousness would go a long way.

 

 

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