The DUP are waking up to the idea that Fortress Ulster has no future. They should be encouraged, not abused

They are still talking in euphemisms.  They are desperate to avoid finding themselves suddenly on the losing side without any notion of the outcome. Goodness knows what Theresa May can offer to sell the withdrawal agreement when she visits Northern Ireland  on her nationwide tour. Experience of local negotiations argues strongly against side deals and the arguments have been so well rehearsed already.

Entirely wisely, the DUP are for once hinting at a solution to the backstop conundrum other than “bin it.” For the Guardian it wasn’t even a hint.  While not quite the get out of jail card, the Norway option should appease the rebellious farmers and business and will tempt the majority of MPs in all parties who have the immediate fate of Brexit in their hands. Raising it reduces the high and appalling risk to the DUP of finding themselves scapegoats for an emergency No Deal.  If it turns out to be true that at least  90 Conservatives will oppose the withdrawal agreement in the meaningful vote, their 10 votes won’t  save it anyway.  The attention then switches to plan B.

Arlene Foster’s warm words to the SDLP and the other minority parties can be seen in a similar light. Sceptics will see a trap to try to wrap yet another cloak of unionist unity around the SDLP and Alliance and isolate Sinn Fein.  These are delicate straws in the wind that can disappear in a puff of smoke. They may be “distractions” from the essential deadlock with Sinn Fein and the expected verdict of the cash for ash inquiry. “Distraction” is a cool concept in political analysis these days. But even if Mrs Foster is forced to quit, the essential realities remain.  A considered response to Peter Robinson’s call to re-negotiate over the Irish Language is the next thing to look out for.

Unable to influence events Sinn Fein have been fairly quiet.  Mary Lou McDonald’s cautious welcomes  the withdrawal agreement in preference to   a second Brexit referendum, the rival attraction to an early border poll. A formula that needs to be recognised:  the higher the trading barriers between north and south, the greater the pressure for Irish unity. The creative approach is, in the words of the late great William Goldman is ” to follow the money,” and coming to realise that truly, it doesn’t require selling your soul.

Later

Leo Varadkar has made a statement which if it’s pursued may  build up into significant pressure on Sinn Fein.   He said if Sinn Féin felt they cannot take up their seats because of their absentionist policy, they should consider resigning ahead of a vote on the deal in the House of Commons.

Sinn Féin is an unusual party in that it is not taking up its seats in Westminster for one reason and it isn’t taking up its seats in Stormont for another.

Generally people who get involved in politics get involved because they want to make a difference and use the democratic process to get good outcomes for citizens.

If they are not willing to take up their seats because they feel they can’t, because they got elected on the basis of abstentionism, they do have the option now of resigning their seats and allowing the people in those constituencies decide whether or not they want to have a say when this vote comes to Westminster.”

He also sounded a note of optimism about whether the deal can be ratified by  Westminster. I’m happy to be corrected but I think this is the first time a leader of one of the two leading Dail parties has linked the point to a specific vote in Westminster. Of course it may be no more than a dig at Sinn Fein. They could always stand in by elections  and have abstentionism confirmed. And why would Sinn Fein’s votes be needed if Westminster will pass the agreement eventually anyway, as Varadkar seems to believe?

But if the linkage between abstaining at Westminster and Stormont becomes bipartisan with Fianna Fail  it could amount to much more,  if a return to  Stormont was made  a condition for potential  partnership in government in the Republic.

While the present exposure of the DUP carries with it considerable medium term risks, the scathing criticism of the party as “besieged, insecure, defensive and distrustful” is overdone.  Despite the clear breaches, they are surely right to try to preserve their deal with the Conservatives. No Conservative  on either side of the Brexit argument disagrees.

Their belief that the NI specific terms of the backstop create a precedent for continuing divergence from the UK may be exaggerated but it is not irrational. Permission to quit  the backstop has to be granted by the EU ; and to the DUP, that means Dublin’s pleasure. Their criticism is obviously true that Mrs May “pressed the delete  button” on the earlier British proposal to  give the Assembly a veto on implementing the backstop. But with no Assembly in being and severe doubts  that it could agree on anything anyway, she had no convincing argument to put  to the EU.

Mrs Foster’s reply is to resume efforts to restore the Assembly fit for Brexit.

How persuasive is “the best of both worlds” argument?  Traditionally, economics never trumps politics. Are the DUP now recognising the extent of pressure to satisfy both and not politics alone?    A Fortress Ulster behind the barricades of hard Brexit Britain should have no attractions to even the most militant unionist. Mrs Foster’s criticism of the prime minister’s defence of NI special status is neat but not conclusive, that you cannot argue at the same time that the backstop doesn’t really matter and yet gives us the best of both worlds. Achieving the best of both worlds is the desirable aim of any half way acceptable final deal.

A restored Assembly fit for an agreed Brexit deal opens up opportunities for developing it that cry out to be examined. As MLAs won’t have a veto on the backstop, the two governments must get over their Brexit huffs and resume the role of responsible trustees. This is the context – admittedly a very optimistic one –  for finding a replacement for the NI specific backstop that would also satisfy the EU.

The political plus for unionism is that it would fill the vacuum which pressure for a fairly early border poll so readily occupies.

Apart from No Brexit, Norway appears to fit the bill – if they can overcome the little problem of freedom of movement, a Brexiteer anathema. The DUP  deserve encouragement, not abuse which although sorely tempting at times, verges on anti-unionist bigotry. At least the taoiseach has levelled up criticism that was becoming unbalanced.

 

 

 

 

fici

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