ANALYSIS: Might the DUP now be wondering whether Brexit was worth it?
Thirty-two years after Ian Paisley thundered “never, never, never” in response to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, another unionist leader once again said no, albeit in more moderate tones.
Arlene Foster, flanked by her MPs, said plainly “we will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom”. The proposed bespoke arrangement for Northern Ireland leaked this morning has sparked a predictably defensive gnashing of teeth by unionists.
The party were evidently spooked by something last week when Sammy Wilson, their Brexit spokesperson, emerged to threaten the Conservatives that the confidence and supply deal struck following the election could be withdrawn should Theresa May “placate Dublin and the EU”. This broadside seemed somewhat incongruous given the bonhomie of the DUP conference only a few days previously, where Damien Green and Julian Smith had been feted.
It seems bewildering that given their importance to her government’s survival, May did not get the DUP on board prior to this. Equally bewildering is unionist surprise that the Conservatives would double-cross them, given that even the most casual perusal of the history of the Tory unionist relationship is littered with such examples.
When Peter Brooke, John Major’s Secretary of State, told an audience in 1990 that Britain had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in remaining in Northern Ireland, he was simply affirming a long-standing Tory antipathy to a placed described by Reginald Maudling as a “bloody awful country”. That the DUP would be sacrificed on the altar of Brexit expediency is no great surprise.
Despite the unabated enthusiasm of the DUP for Brexit, not one of their elected representatives has put forward a properly nuanced justification as to why EU withdrawal would suit Northern Ireland. Making the party’s stance analogous with a hard Brexit is almost as damaging to the Union as the decision to back the campaign to leave in the first place.
The moderate Remain-voting unionist view is not given much spotlight, particularly given the DUP’s dominance of the political scene in Northern Ireland. Hardliners who see conspiracy at each turn may view “regulatory alignment” as a step towards a united Ireland, though it is perfectly reasonable to contend that such an agreement would have held off any increased demand at the pass. In 2008 the party’s then leader Peter Robinson, deployed as an attack dog in recent days, said unionism would have to appeal beyond its traditional base to survive in the face of demographic change. Such far-sightedness seems to have been cast to the wind.
The DUP’s point regarding the wider constitutional complications of a bespoke deal for Northern Ireland is valid, though that rehashing of the Remainer argument that Brexit would be a boon to nationalisms in other parts of the UK seems hollow given who is now saying it.
What the DUP does next is within its gift. Pulling down the Government and ushering in a Corbyn-run Northern Ireland Office would be an act of self-defeating folly. Compromising Ulster’s “equality of citizenship” within the United Kingdom by taking some sort of deal would excite the constituency within unionism which five years ago was inflamed by the flag no longer being flown each day from Belfast City Hall.
Perhaps, somewhere at Stormont tonight, the DUP are wondering whether Brexit was worth it at all.