For all its flaws, Theresa May’s direct appeal to Northern Ireland should prompt the DUP to stop playing a loser’s game

Theresa May has taken her campaign to win support for the Withdrawal Agreement direct to the people of Northern Ireland.  Adopting May’s authentic voice for an article in the Belfast Telegraph, her script writer weighs in   with “the best of both worlds” argument couched in the usual boilerplate, ticking all the boxes but failing to  frame the choice as between the withdrawal agreement and the DUP’s negativism. Keeping it general, there is only a feeble attempt to “de-dramatise” Northern Ireland’s unique relationship with the customs union and single market as well short of undermining the constitutional position – that is, a refutation of  “the death by a thousand cuts” argument.

Under this deal the future is certainly bright for Northern Ireland. It will be a gateway to both the EU market and the rest of the UK’s market. With a business-friendly regulatory regime, and strong representation in Westminster, it will remain an attractive place to live, invest and do business. ( I like the strong representation at Westminster bit).

There has been a lot of focus on the so-called backstop to this agreement that ensures that there can never be a return to the borders of the past in the event that we have not entered into our future relationship by 2021. Although it is important to restate that both sides agree that we never want to use it, and will both be legally bound to use our best endeavours to reach agreement on the future in good time, I understand and share some of the concerns that have been expressed.

I believe the following three points make this an acceptable insurance policy: first, there is the opportunity to extend the Implementation Period instead of entering the backstop; second, the Government will keep regulations consistent across the whole of the UK in order to minimise any checks or controls and ensure no divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain; and third, this is expressly temporary, with a mechanism by which it can be terminated. And of course, in this situation, Northern Ireland would benefit from frictionless access to both the EU and the rest of the UK markets.

And yet.. as that keen DUP watcher  Professor Jon Tongue writes, Mrs  May is being less than frank about who is really in control…  

Moving beyond objective economic and constitutional analysis and into partisan politics however, the DUP’s fury with the Prime Minister is understandable. For May has acted duplicitously. She allowed the removal of paragraph 50 of the Joint EU-UK report agreed last December, which offered the prospect of local agreement to alignment – without bothering to inform the region’s largest party.

Now the PM tells us she will ensure there will be ‘no divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain’. As EU Single Market rules will prevail in Northern Ireland, her only choice as UK Prime Minister will be to follow those rules for part of ‘her’ Kingdom. Those EU rules will probably be fine and sensible, so who cares – not businesses probably – but she does need to be frank about who is in control.

The Prime Minister also claims this arrangement is “expressly temporary, with a mechanism by which it can be terminated”. In the same way that life is temporary and will eventually be terminated, yes. But its average length is 81 years – and you wouldn’t bet on the UK-EU Commission agreeing that the backstop can be safely removed much shy of that. And the PM knows full well that the ‘mechanism’ by which transitional arrangements are terminated has dual controls. She cannot act alone.

But raging against a PM’s unsubtle dissembling and half-truths does not a policy make. The PM is determined to see this through as the only deal in town, one seeming to attract considerable local sympathy.

By contrast the Detail deploys “the treacherous DUP should be more grateful” argument, put by the nationalist-leaning Matthew O’Toole who used to work as a No 10 press officer .

Neither party should be surprised at the other’s stance, yet both somehow appear surprised. Since there was no way the European Union was going to drop its demand for some Northern Ireland-specific backstop measures, the DUP could hardly have been surprised when these arrangements duly emerged. The party offered Theresa May precisely zero credit for negotiating concessions from the EU’s initial draft withdrawal text, which explicitly placed Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs territory.

But rather than take credit for demonstrably shifting the outcome in their favour, as they have done, the DUP is determined to oppose the outcome to no obvious end. Rather than owning a compromise which they have shaped, they prefer to look like its victim. The DUP and ERG share an unwillingness to see the limits of these majorities, and the extent to which forcing confrontation on the basis of a minority vision will put at risk their entire cause.

For keen textual analysts, the DUP are being highly  selective in quoting  only paragraph  50 of the joint EU/UK report of last December which became the basis for the  backstop throughout its evolution.

In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

Without referring back to paragraph 49

The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

So there you have it. But who was to maintain full alignment? The UK  as a whole neither wanted it nor would have been granted it. That left Northern Ireland alone.

While Alex Kane is rightly advising “clarity and cool headed thinking” about the undoubted decline in unionist relative power in relation to nationalists, he poses only a dilemma. It doesn’t help that he accuses May of “unambiguously shafting” the DUP.  While this may confirm his unionist credentials with his target audience, it blurs his message.  Mrs May rejects that accusation with every appearance of sincerity, just as she seems to believe she is not trying to “shaft” the Brexiteers.  What she has agreed with the EU is what the DUP temperamentally reject, a compromise. It makes them losers in the zero sum games they insist on playing and will now lose more often than not in a more equal world .

Indeed there isn’t much of a dilemma for them. Whatever form the Brexit outcome takes, Unionism’s survival lies in recognising the facts of a mixed polity in which Britishness and Irishness are as interchangeable as possible, made a bit more difficult by Brexit but mitigated by enjoying the best of both worlds, in which they have a considerable say under the terms of a reviving GFA. The key point to grasp usually missed in this endless wrangle, is that closer association with the south does not require cutting the British link .

l call that a happy outcome. The alternative is eventually to face the ultimate zero sum game of a border poll and lose it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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