No sign of Ireland blinking over the backstop, as Theresa May races around Europe raising the bogey of No Deal

Theresa May  at bay  threw down one effective challenge to  the massed ranks of her critics. “Come clean: do you want Brexit or not? “No”, chorused the SNP and she rolled her eyes. For as long as  Parliament cannot settle on an agreed  alternative she holds a narrow initiative. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed woman is queen. In her whistle -stop tour of continental capitals, her ploy now is to seek  “reassurances”, a time honoured feature of … Read more

Keep your eye on the glimmer of light in the Big Picture. But first we need to re-examine the backstop, sooner rather than later.

Although the sight of it is darkly occluded, the shape of things to come is emerging through the fog. Whatever immediate  political strategy  Theresa May chooses today, the dream of the hard line Brexiteers is in process of disintegration.  Whatever the political turmoil today, the UK will retain some sort of close relationship with the EU.   In Northern Ireland, unionists will have a closer relationship with the Republic and with nationalists generally – and I would argue with only slightly … Read more

The DUP would be fools to vote for no confidence in the government and boost the chances of a No Deal default

Politics is in a vortex of fast moving events over which the government has little control. According to the likely scenario, Theresa May will lose the meaningful vote badly next Tuesday night.  What happens next is in uncharted waters. But this is how  the meaningful vote fits into the prescribed  timetable, courtesy of the FT: The vote is a legal obligation under the UK’s 2018 EU Withdrawal Act, which says such a vote must take place “before the European Parliament decides whether … Read more

DUP are threatening May with collapse unnecessarily, even in their own cause

It looks worse and worse for Theresa May as a crucial week begins. The Times reports:   Theresa May was under fresh pressure last night as the DUP threatened to abandon her in a confidence vote if she failed to get her Brexit deal through parliament. Party sources said that they were considering the move, which would leave the prime minister without a Commons majority, over fears that her plan would create a border between Northern Ireland and the rest … Read more

Theresa May’s survival depends on cross party support for Plan B. Will she concede or quit?

First things first. Are we back to contemplating  the DUP holding the balance of power? The Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times report what they rate as exciting new moves for an already potentially fateful week. The Democratic Unionist Party will join Labour and other opposition parties on Monday in a bid to force the Government to publish its legal advice on Brexit – a move that could delay the crucial vote on Theresa May’s plan. In an explosive alliance that will rock the … Read more

Game of chicken is hotting up

Brexit tensions are rising towards fever pitch. The Times story puts it neatly : If you step back from the noise surrounding Theresa May’s struggle to get her deal through parliament there are really only four Brexit options left on the table: Mrs May’s deal (possibly tweaked); no deal; a second referendum; and a Norway-style soft Brexit. Each option has its advocates in the Commons but none yet has enough backing to command majority support in the House. Ultimately MPs … Read more

Northern Ireland’s business community has united as never before to make sure it is heard and the consequences of crashing out of the EU next March are understood.

Stephen Kelly is the Chief Executive of Manufacturing NI, he writes for Slugger about why the Withdrawal Agreement from the European Union should be supported. A community has found it voice. Reluctant, yet determined, Northern Ireland’s business community has united as never before, to make sure is heard, and that the consequences of crashing out of the EU next March are understood. Some may have been frustrated that Northern Ireland’s businesses and their representatives have been too quiet, but we … Read more

“This is the “Canada-plus” option the EU at one point said it would never agree to…”

The Irish Times today carries the view of, the always worth reading, FT columnist Wolfgang Münchau on the withdrawal agreement between the UK and EU. First he makes a quick point on the opposition on both sides of the House of Commons… When British cabinet ministers resigned hours after the publication of the withdrawal agreement between the UK and EU, they could not conceivably have read it, let alone digested its finer points. Many of the MPs who denounced the … Read more

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 … Read more

Why would the DUP NOT support a soft Brexit for the final deal that would get rid of border problems?

With the cabinet splitting every which way in all directions, Theresa May comes into her own as the ace stonewaller to every burning hypothetical question. As the fateful moment of signing the withdrawal agreement arrived in Brussels this morning, the prime minister was still insisting to the massed ranks of sceptics back home: “This isn’t about me. It’s not the case that there is another negotiation to be done. This is the deal that’s been agreed, it’s the only deal … Read more

Too many are unconvinced by Theresa May’s claim of alternatives later to the backstop. And some are prepared to ditch Northern Ireland

What matters next has changed.  Summit signing on Sunday apart, the next real stage of Brexit is not about Brussels but how MPs will react to what’s in front of them. The political declaration published today was full of warm words for a deep and meaningful relationship but it is clear that British options for striking out independently are constrained by the legal terms of the withdrawal agreement featuring the backstop. Try and she might to hint at a different … Read more

DUP take care. Unionism needs UK support to develop a viable vision

Alex Kane’s position as the voice of reasoned unionism is confirmed by the remarkable fact that he’s invited to write for all the main papers which are read in Northern Ireland. He has just delivered the latest version of his message to encourage the creation of Unionist Unity (my caps) to meet the challenges of special status for Northern Ireland with the EU against the background of the coming potential nationalist majority.  If that means killing off the last illusions … Read more

Theresa May is in there, in the general jostling for last minute gains

What a mad rush to the tape it’s turning out to be!  Theresa May will be in Brussels today ahead of Sunday’s summit  to squeeze the last scrap of advantage  out of the withdrawal agreement as they all look ahead to the future. The EU states on the other hand are equally determined that as the price of leaving, Britain will be denied advantages she enjoys now. Last minute objections are being raised by the Spanish over the status of … Read more

Is May suddenly beginning to take seriously an alternative to the backstop?

Who’s the bloke in the flat cap with IDS and Peter Lilley? Yes! It’s our very own David Trimble leaving Downing St last night after this gang of three veterans made a last minute pitch for a different border solution to that agreed between the EU and Theresa May. Lilley, a Thatcher disciple and former trade secretary refused to reveal what went on  the Today programme this morning. Now No 10 tells us that May listened and the cabinet discussed … Read more

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 … Read more

The DUP fired a shot against the government’s bows, taking care to miss

The headliner at Ronnie Scott’s looks crap tonight Tweet of the day  from jazz buff Ken Clarke followed by.. I’ve been sat up in bed for hours, whisky on the bedside table, soft jazz playing in the background, trying to think if I’ve ever worked with a more idiotic bunch of self centred bastards in my nearly 50 years as a MP. Nope, still can’t think of any. Time for another bottle. Gently reminding Nigel Dodds across the floor of … Read more

The border in the Irish Sea… the future of north-south cooperation.The devil is in the detail.

RTE News’s Europe editor Tony Connelly has published two extremely useful stories on  essential detail. Does the Ireland/NI Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement threaten north-south cooperation? Does the proposed customs arrangement for Northern Ireland amount to a border in the Irish Sea that threatens its constitutional position? How the rules would actually work is explained. This new customs territory would therefore be a combination of the EU’s customs territory, set out in EU law, and the UK’s customs territory. But … Read more

The prime minister may not have the numbers but options are running out for the DUP and the Tory Brexiteers

  With a week to go before the hoped for ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, Nigel Dodds has grabbed  Dominic Raab’s reading of the Withdrawal Agreement  as a lifeline.  It  may  confirm his worst fears coming from someone who only four days ago was in the inner circle, but now, much good may it do him.   In his Sunday Times article, Raab is withering about the European Commission’s approach to the talks and accuses Brussels of deliberately trying to wound … Read more

The DUP have a good point about the democratic deficit. But the cabinet critics are offering nothing new to solve it

Read moreThe DUP have a good point about the democratic deficit. But the cabinet critics are offering nothing new to solve 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

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