ANALYSIS: Has the DUP's support for Brexit left them gambling with the Union?

Posted On: 
18th October 2018

The DUP's backing for Brexit has seen them backed into a constitutional corner, says Andrew McQuillan.

Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds are strong supporters of Brexit.
Credit: 
PA Images

It may be something of a stretch to suggest that the DUP’s anger over the question of a hybrid backstop is a slow coming to terms with the existential threat Brexit poses to the Union which defines every fibre of its political being. Nigel Dodds' realisation that leaving the EU has turned into a “battle for the Union” might be welcome had it not come at a minute to midnight.

History will judge how wise it was for the DUP to embrace the Conservatives, not only on Brexit but on confidence and supply. This after all, is a party which has a track record in treating its unionist credentials with expediency; it delivered the Anglo-Irish Agreement and one of its Secretaries of State said the Government had no “selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”. As in the past, it is not a stretch to assume that an English Prime Minister would sacrifice Northern Ireland for an easier life.

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Yet it has still come as a surprise to some in Westminster how this uniquely thrawn group have reacted to such a proposal; threats not to support the Budget and thereby undermine the confidence and supply deal have been dismissed by some as bluffing or the result of some inherent intransigence. It is more existential than that, something missed not only would it seem by some of the UK negotiating party but the EU as well.

This week will provide some of the most challenging days faced by the unionist body politic since the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. The trauma of that period – when the British Government gave its Irish counterpart a consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland for the first time – scarred unionist trust of Westminster. It even moved one unionist MP to say it would have been better for his children “if they had never looked at the Union flag, thought that they were British or put their trust in the House of Commons than spending the rest of their lives knowing that they are now some sort of semi-British citizen”.

What is being broached now, in 2018, goes beyond the semi-citizen status. Should the UK Government accept that Northern Ireland must forever be in full regulatory and customs alignment with the EU and arguably a step removed from the internal UK market, it would be a profound breaking of the ties which bind Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK.

This goes beyond FTAs, ERGs and BRINOs and the associated alphabet soup that has sprung up since June 2016, it is about instinctive emotion.

There is of course an element of self-preservation to this. After years of bandying the slogan “Standing Strong for Northern Ireland” for all to see, to somehow be viewed as handmaidens to such a calamity would result in DUP canvassers getting a tough time on the streets of North Belfast, East Antrim and East Londonderry.

Those in the party with long memories will remember that its path to domination was eased by deploying a bruising narrative of betrayal against David Trimble for signing the Good Friday Agreement; given that was a success for unionism, goodness knows what response would greet Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds should this come to pass.

Outwith the confines of party politics, one must also consider its impact on not just unionism but wider Northern Irish society. Much valid concern has been expressed about the impact of a hard border on dissident republicanism, yet how will the murkier reaches of loyalism react should they perceive the Union to be under threat once again? The resetting of unionist attitudes to their pre-1998 standpoint would appear to be a consequence of Brexit.

None of this wailing and gnashing of teeth provides an answer as to how the DUP extricate themselves from this. Unlike in 1985, other parts of the UK are taking an interest in their predicament; Ruth Davidson and David Mundell’s threats to resign while not coming out of any sense of “hands across the water” unionism show that the DUP are not without allies this time round.

Yet on strategy, not much seems to be different; back then, unionists threatened to disrupt the Government as much as they could. MPs resigned from their seats, councils suffered walkouts and Ian Paisley hollered about a female Conservative Prime Minister “betraying” Northern Ireland. 33 years on we already have the betrayal narrative – against Dublin, Brussels and perfidious Albion – developing while some on the unionist fringes have mooted protests.

That failed then and it is a struggle to see how it will work now. It is simply a question of numbers; faced with a European Union in full solidarity with one of its member states and a Government on the cusp of agreeing to something which will leave Northern Ireland bound to different regulation, the Unionists are, to borrow a Republican riff, “themselves alone” with only the most ideological members of the ERG for company.

Beyond pulling the rug from under the Government or performing a volte face on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, options are limited. However, it didn’t need to be this way; Nigel Dodds wrote in the Telegraph that the DUP “don’t gamble with the Union”. Some would say their decisions in 2016 and since contest that statement.

* Andrew McQuillan works in public affairs and writes extensively on Northern Ireland