ANALYSIS: An Englishman's Betrayal: What next for the DUP?

Posted On: 
29th March 2019

Doing the rounds on angry, Leave-supporting loyalist Twitter after the latest defeat of the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement was one of those songs clubs in east Belfast have reverberated to down the years; pub singer, dodgy backing accordion and mournful lyrics, that sort of thing.

Boris Johnson with Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster at last year's DUP conference.
Credit: 
PA Images

Called “Englishman’s Betrayal”, it’s a dirge about perfidious Albion’s regular shrugs of indifference towards Northern Ireland despite unionism’s enduring loyalty to Queen and country.

It  seemed particularly appropriate given the decision of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson to walk through the Aye lobby to support Theresa May's Brexit deal earlier today.

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Even in these times of heightened political expediency, the alliance between Rees-Mogg, he who once said he takes the whip from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church rather than Julian Smith, and the DUP was one of the more innocuous thrown up by Brexit; aside from sovereignty, one wonders what he spoke with Sammy Wilson et al about when he was the star attraction on the DUP after-dinner circuit.

As recently as Wednesday, he was repeating his protestations that he “would not abandon the DUP”. Based on Friday’s events, those reassurances can be placed alongside Margaret Thatcher’s “Ulster is as British as Finchley” on the shelf of bromides Conservative politicians have thrown at uppity Ulstermen to keep them quiet or on side. The prospects of a warm welcome on future visits to Ballymena and Larne for Rees-Mogg and Johnson are unlikely.

Reportedly, DUP sources were, unsurprisingly, not taken aback that the former Foreign Secretary’s bona fides proved to be less than that, but were genuinely taken aback by the ERG chair’s volte-face.

However, should this latest Englishman’s betrayal have come as a surprise to them? Arguably not. Despite use of the trite “our precious union” ad nauseam by Tory MPs since that pesky backstop started ruining the Brexiteer’s party, its sincerity could only be taken at face value. Everyone, apart from the DUP it seems, could see that when it came down to it for a swathe of English Brexiteers, leaving the EU would always take primacy over any small attachment to a geographically and politically distant part of the UK which deep down, they regard as an annoyance at best. What’s important about a border between Belfast and the rest of the UK when you can have unfettered trade access to Bangkok?

So what now? Would the DUP countenance a long extension, a customs union of some kind perhaps, to avoid the sort of blind Brexit that would give their opponents in the nationalist camp a boon? Frankly, who knows, the party’s strategic foresight has been lacking for some time. Spitting feathers or mirthful laughter were the two competing feelings upon hearing the clunk of the penny dropping at Westminster when Nigel Dodds told the BBC that he would rather the UK stay in the EU if that was the only way to secure Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.

The Union trumps tariff free access for the DUP, even among true believers in the Brexit dream like Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley Jr. Following their abandonment by Rees-Mogg and the EU kyboshing any chance of the Agreement being opened up again without the backstop, the DUP, despite saying no repeatedly, may end up being bounced into the sort of softer option which protects their most important red line of all.

If that’s the case, and for the Union’s sake, this particular Englishman’s betrayal might not be so bad after all. With local elections in Northern Ireland just round the corner, a party so obsessed with its hold on power would be wise to take the chance while they still have it.

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