The most the Commons is likely do today is to require a technical extension of withdrawal until all the ps and qs of Johnson’s new Withdrawal Act have been passed. This move would constitute the final protection against No Deal, rather leading to No Brexit.
So alas, for the campaign to stop Brexit, it is all over bar some shouting.
Personally I bitterly regret this outcome. The second referendum case offering a choice between some deal and Remain was impeccably democratic, rational and right. The problem with it was the inability of the “rebel majority” to unite around anything that would pass the Commons.
The message for Northern Ireland is that any deal short of Remain was always bound to feature a backstop or what has actually transpired, a front stop which smacks of permanence. For all the fuss about agreeing a consent mechanism, it is very doubtful whether a restored Assembly would achieve the cohesion to implement it one way or another. For the moment, it acts as a fig leaf “to get Brexit done”.
It is very difficult to imagine either the DUP or Sinn Fein agreeing to allow a simple majority in a restored Assembly to override the mutual veto. If the DUP really believe Northern Ireland’s constitutional position is under threat, the brutal logic for them is either to switch to Remain or never to return to the Assembly. For by this reckoning, the Assembly is no longer a bulwark against constitutional change but a Trojan horse for achieving it.
DUP critics will have a fair old time mocking them. The Assembly sitting will demonstrate differences with GB over equal marriage and abortion when it suits them, and their impotence in preventing both against the will of Parliament. It’s a rich irony that the sovereignty of Parliament is being asserted over two major issues they oppose, social reform and the terms of Brexit. Constitutionally if not politically, they can have no complaint.
The DUP can plead some extenuation for their seeming intransigence. They did not invent Brexit nor place themselves at the balance of power after the 2017 general election. Who else would they have supported other than the Conservative and Unionist party? They were probably in for lose:lose from the start.
Nor can the DUP’s case since be dismissed entirely. While their support for Leave always seemed like a trap they set for themselves believing the Conservatives would release them from it, the prospect unfolds of a hard Brexit taking GB further way from EU conditions and hardening the border in the Irish Sea. The existing proposals are stiff and complex enough. I wouldn’t be surprised that once the present euphoria subsides, they turn out to be a complete mess in practice. I look to Northern Ireland business who have up to now been clear headed, honest and constructive, to come clean about this.
Now that the two governments have reached a tacit agreement to checkmate them over the border, the best the DUP can do now is to challenge them to agree on terms for the restoration of the Assembly and call a Stormont election some months after Brexit has finally been implemented. There is no way the local parties can produce a positive outcome on their own.
The governments must no longer tolerate the mutual veto, even if this means a sustained period of direct rule under terms Dublin can support during which essential domestic reforms must be implemented. The precedent of Westminster enacting equal marriage and abortion in defiance of devolution protocols can be invoked, but with enhanced scrutiny- perhaps south of the border in some cases, as well as at Westminster. Wales and Scotland have different approaches to their other indigenous languages. The UK government recognised at St Andrews that the position of Irish should be strengthened and should give it statutory form.
For their part, Dublin should not overclaim for its role under the GFA. They have to make clear without ambiguity that there is no way they would support a border poll in this atmosphere. London and Dublin have to reach clarity about the status and extent of citizen’s rights, British and Irish.
If Varadkar’s latest comments to unionists are any guide, both governments can borrow from the Life of Brian script and ask: “what has the Union ever done for us?” In NI/ Israel today, the gap between our own the Judaean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judaea is as wide as ever. The two governments, having established the beginnings of a new relationship, should not allow the impotence of the local parties to constitute a permanent veto on progress.
Faced with prospect of pressure without end, the DUP’s response ought to be to regroup as a party of government closer to the liberal centre which is where the growing demographic majority lies. By doing so they would more closely match Sinn Fein’s position on domestic policy and thus create more common ground. This may be dismissed as wishful thinking given the evidence of the terms for the recall of Stormont. But there are faint signs of openings, from the abortive negotiations over an ILA to their anti-establishment roots.
Contrary to the fond hopes of 1997, the internal divisions of both unionism and nationalism have promoted too many competitive rushes to the bottom. Only when they realise that finding common ground is the right survival strategy will they prove themselves fit to resume the responsibilities of government.
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