ANALYSIS: The DUP is playing a dangerous game on Theresa May's draft Brexit deal
As the DUP gathers for its annual conference in Belfast this weekend, Andrew McQuillan notes what a difference a year makes.
Last November, in the genteel surroundings of the La Mon Hotel on the outskirts of Belfast, the DUP and Conservatives were acting like one, happy unionist family at the former’s conference. Flags were being waved with gusto by party members while Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds looked on approvingly as Damian Green and Julian Smith sombrely referred to our precious Union.
Given the resulting political trajectory of all concerned, that afternoon is a veritable salad day in comparison. Philip Hammond, the lone Tory minister sent out to bat by the Prime Minister this year, is likely to get less of the red-carpet treatment and more of the red hand, such is the level of DUP anger with the draft Brexit deal. His former Cabinet colleague, Boris Johnson, also attending the conference to perform his anti-agreement vaudeville, is more likely to go down well with the locals.
Conference has always been a generous description of the DUP’s annual gathering. It is more a rally with a dash of prayer meeting thrown in. Policy discussion has often been skirted round in favour of displays of tribal loyalty.
It has rarely been a forum for dissent either but given the trauma the party has suffered since Theresa May introduced her Brexit plan, anger could be on the menu alongside the customary traybake.
Make no mistake, the deal is a humiliation delivered atop a betrayal for the party’s high command. After claiming they had the Government on a tight leash and crowing that they had “done over” the Irish after the backstop row was neutered in December, recent events make the ad-hominem repetition that the party is “Standing Strong for Northern Ireland” ring hollow. What a time for Mrs Foster and her adjutants in Westminster to be taking the stage.
In different times and at a different conference, the leadership would normally be on the rack. The forensic excoriations of the QC-led inquiry into the botched Renewable Heating Initiative, have cast the party and several key figures in a deeply unforgiving light.
In most parties, the fusion of domestic travails and challenges at Westminster would result in a challenge. Indeed, it is not beyond the wit of man to assume that there will be an ambitious MLA, with a lot of time on their hands given Stormont isn’t sitting, who thinks they could do a better job. Yet the DUP is not most parties.
In time old unionist fashion, the wagons have been circled and broadsides are being fired in the direction of the Prime Minister and the agreement in the form of abstentions on legislation at Westminster. Most DUP members are likely to be fine with that; the idea of fighting back anything which is perceived to be a betrayal by perfidious British governments is the party’s bread and butter.
While political unionism is broadly united against the agreement, the same cannot be said for Northern Irish business. While the traditional alphabet soup of trade associations and bodies has backed the draft deal, one particularly notable supporter was the Ulster Farmers Union. With a strong cultural role in rural unionism, its qualified endorsement of the deal was enough for Sammy Wilson to accuse it of being “a puppet of the Northern Ireland Office”.
The wisdom of attacking a bastion of traditional unionist support aside, it is a marked departure for a movement which since the Peter Robinson era has tried to style itself as the corporation tax-slashing, pro-business party in the Province. Suggestions the deal could turn Northern Ireland into a craggier and damper Hong Kong are unlikely to electrify conference-goers this weekend; after all, looked what happened to Hong Kong in 1997.
Instead, it looks as though the party will rally round the flag once again in opposition to the agreement, political declaration and all that entails. That will get cheers from the hall, there will be a lusty rendition of God Save the Queen and all will go home happy.
All this ideological purity may provide some succour to the DUP in these embattled times, but this dogmatic refusal to accept the grey areas of the Brexit compromise is a dangerous game. Pining for an absolutist, “red, white and blue” Brexit in the fashion of the ERG over the current constructive ambiguity on offer might suit party members, but is unlikely to be as well received in the wider court of Northern Irish public opinion.
With shifting demographics thrown in for good measure, that is the greatest danger to the cause the party holds so dear.