ANALYSIS: More than Brexit at stake if the DUP backs Boris Johnson's Brexit deal

Posted On: 
16th October 2019

More often than not, opportunism rather than well-thought strategy is what makes for political success.

Could the DUP's position as Northern Ireland's pre-eminent unionist party be put at risk by Brexit?
Credit: 
PA Images

In the aftermath of the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Agreement, as the Royal Ulster Constabulary was disbanded and convicted IRA terrorists were freed from prison without substantive decommissioning of republican weapons. The DUP were able to capitalise on these difficult, early concessions by portraying themselves as the Union’s resolute defenders compared with David Trimble’s supposedly yellow-bellied Ulster Unionists.

Fast forward 20 years, and as we prepare for what possibly looks like a Brexit deal which would result in Northern Ireland de jure in the UK’s customs territory, but de facto in European Union’s, the suggestion the DUP are the Union’s best guarantor arguably stands hollow. As the perennial thorn in the party’s side, Jim Allister, put it, this would effectively mean Northern Ireland would experience “not only Brexit but Britishness in name only”.

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Whether the former is good or bad is a moot point, but the latter has the potential to only store up trouble for the party and cause it espouses.

In the aftermath of the signing of the 2017 confidence and supply agreement between her party and the Conservatives, Arlene Foster boasted to the DUP executive that unionism had never held such sway in the Commons. Instead, with a Prime Minister not in as much a thrall to them as Theresa May and a failure on their part to be less hubristic and more magnanimous in how they discharged their leverage, the DUP have presided over what their fellow unionists would contend is the biggest sell-out by a British Government since the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. 

Wailing and gnashing of teeth, protest marches and threats of Armageddon, as then, will make no difference now. With the suggestion that a sizeable swathe of the ERG are slowly coming around to what Johnson is proposing, parliamentary room for manoeuvre is limited, while, despite the DUP’s evangelical heritage, a Damascene about-turn in favour of a People’s Vote is out of the question

How will unionist voters respond? The Ulster Unionist Party, smarting from being superseded by the DUP all those years ago, scents blood. Though it may be a stretch to suggest that a party with no MPs, which lost the MEP seat it held for 40 years at May’s EU election and haemorrhaged votes at recent local council elections might be on the cup of a comeback, the circumstances are there to outflank the DUP on the most existential of issues.

With the UUP set to elect MLA Steve Aitken – a liberal unionist who has performed well against DUP counterparts in recent media appearances – as its new leader, it now has the opportunity which evaded his predecessors, a rare chance to pursue a strategy which puts clear, blue water between it and the DUP’s increasingly cack-handed stewardship of unionism.

Brexit is symptomatic of a wider malaise which has afflicted unionism, particularly since Arlene Foster became DUP leader and First Minister in late 2015. This week sees the publication of the respected Northern Irish journalist Sam McBride’s book on the renewable heating (RHI) scandal which caused the collapse of the devolved institutions. A timely reminder that the much-anticipated findings of the lengthy inquiry will pose difficult and fundamental questions about the DUP’s competency and approach to governing Northern Ireland, and indeed Mrs Foster’s leadership.

When taken in the context of the DUP’s maladroit handling of not only RHI but same-sex marriage and legacy issues to name but a few, its misstep over Brexit does not come as much of a surprise. Unionism is crying out for a half-way competent and modernising force, particularly with an eye on social and, more importantly, demographic changes in Northern Ireland.  Yet, due to several factors, it may remain the pre-eminent unionist party.

The UUP and the more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice lack the infrastructure in the short term at least to challenge the DUP effectively, with the exception of certain constituencies, across Northern Ireland.

Given the noises made by Sinn Fein about border polls and the like, unionists in seats where the nationalists are the main challenger are likely to be receptive to any “rally round the flag” electioneering the DUP puts forward. It would also be remiss to ignore historical precedents of the DUP somehow convincing unionists that what they once thought was a bad thing is now a good thing; from asking “what shall we do with the traitor Trimble?” in 1998 to eventually sharing power with Sinn Fein in 2007 is a reminder of its ability to hold its nose and powers of persuasion.

The tone, however, seems different from just over 10 years ago. As a Belfast loyalist was quoted at the weekend as saying, “we’re f****d, and if we get thrown under the bus, the DUP’s going to be seen as the driver”.

Regardless of what happens with Brexit, a serious deliberation about how unionism responds to the changing weather is needed. Whether the DUP is chairing that conversation remains to be seen.

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