Central Lobby is abuzz after another dramatic night’s voting in Parliament. Broadcasters, desperate to make sense of events for the public at home, are collaring weary MPs for interviews as they leave the Chamber. Members of the public attending evening galas are congregated in the centre of the octagonal meeting place, where corridors from the Lords, Commons and Westminster Hall converge. The atmosphere, aided by the grand chandelier above, is electric.
A member of Nigel Dodds’ team takes me from the heart of Parliament to his office a few floors up. The DUP’s Westminster leader is heading back from the lobbies after MPs vote to seek an extension to Article 50. His spacious workspace is improved immeasurably by the two copies of The House magazine laid out on a coffee table.
Dodds arrives looking understandably tired from consecutive late nights, but with his politeness firmly intact. “This has been one of the most incredible weeks in my experience in politics… it’s obviously a very febrile atmosphere, things are very tense, unpredictable,” he says. “MPs from across the parties are finding it quite mentally and emotionally draining. These are very big decisions. For all the criticisms of MPs, these decisions are weighing on them very heavily.”
On Thursday evening, the Government narrowly defeated Hilary Benn’s amendment that would have seen the Commons wrest power from the executive. After MPs voted to rule out no deal in all circumstances on Wednesday, and Theresa May suffered a 149-vote loss on her Brexit deal the night before, Dodds sees some semblance of optimism.
“The Government and people who want to see Brexit delivered have a bit of a spring back in their step after the events of previous days, especially yesterday when no deal was taken off the table,” he argues.
For a fleeting moment, it seemed the end was nigh. The Prime Minister returned from Strasbourg on Monday night with fresh assurances on her deal. That was until Geoffrey Cox QC, the Attorney General, said the legal risk of being tied to the EU after Brexit “remains unchanged”. Though the Cabinet minister said the possibility of the UK being trapped in the backstop had been reduced, the damage had been done. The DUP said they could not vote for the Withdrawal Agreement.
“Geoffrey Cox did his very best; he’s been very honest, open and courageous in my view. He has acted with the utmost integrity, much to the annoyance of some Cabinet ministers,” Dodds says. “What he comes back with – if he can – on any future legal advice is going to be watched very, very carefully, given that he has an enormous amount of credibility.”
The Attorney General is reportedly considering updating his legal advice to refer to Article 62 of the Vienna Convention, which says if there is a material breach or fundamental change of circumstances, a treaty can no longer apply. Legal experts have questioned whether the Article, which applies to states and not international organisations, can be used in this context. Others have raised concerns over the viability of pulling out of a treaty altogether, with consequences for other aspects of the agreement such as EU citizens’ rights.
Dodds, who has a first-class law degree from Cambridge and is a member of the ERG and DUP’s Star Chamber of lawyers, will study the detail carefully. “The one thing about Geoffrey Cox is that he will not gild the lily. He will not try to bluff anyone. He will not try to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes, he will be brutally honest, and we appreciate that very much.”
He adds: “There’s no doubt that he is somebody who is highly regarded and there’s no doubt that his advice on Tuesday about the legal risk of being trapped permanently not having diminished, that was pretty pivotal to a lot of Members of Parliament.”
Among politicians, journalists and the public at large, there is a palpable yearning for the Brexit impasse to draw to a close. The DUP, by virtue of the 2017 election, are key power brokers. Brexiteers, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, look to the unionist party for direction on the Withdrawal Agreement; if they move towards backing the deal, others will follow.
Is Dodds feeling the pressure to act? “Yes, I’m very conscious of the pressure. Of course, within the Westminster bubble, you feel that pressure very intensely. The DUP MPs have long experience of that kind of pressure and are very connected to their constituents and their constituencies back home. So, we have learnt over many years of experiences of how to balance that. But we are conscious of our wider responsibilities to the nation. But we believe that that is complementary to our responsibilities to Northern Ireland,” he says.
No amount of pressure will prevent the DUP from being scrupulous with the details, however. “We have always taken the view that before we would sign up to anything, we need to see text, we need to see legal text,” he says. “The days of just relying on the words of ministers – however well-intentioned and of the utmost integrity and acting in good faith – it is what is in statute and binding treaties that matter.”
Has the Brexit process entrenched that view? “Yes, very much so. The lesson out of all of this is that you must pay attention to the detail of legislation and treaties,” Dodds replies.
He adds: “That’s partly why the Government is in a little difficulty because constructive ambiguity doesn’t work when it comes to legal text and international treaties.”
The DUP’s longstanding red line is to ensure that Northern Ireland is not treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. The backstop – the mechanism by which a hard border is avoided in Northern Ireland if UK-EU trade talks collapse – they believe would impose an effective regulatory border in the Irish sea.
Unless and until the DUP feel the UK is treated as one in the Withdrawal Agreement, they shall not budge. “We have set out very clear objectives, we haven’t changed in those objectives and we won’t be changing them because of any kind of deadline. The Government is well aware of that,” he says. “We have never wavered in that and we will not waver in that red line.”
A tangible demand, and a longstanding DUP bugbear, is for the Brexit deal to better reflect paragraph 50 of the December 2017 joint report that first floated the idea of the backstop. Paragraph 50 gives an effective Stormont lock to new regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Dodds argues the Government have “ignored” the guarantee. “That’s a pretty important area that they must look at,” he says. Immediately, I ask? “Yes.”
Dodds, who is the deputy leader of the DUP, has been MP for Belfast North since 2001. During his career, he has served two one-year terms as Lord Mayor of Belfast and has sat in the Northern Ireland Assembly. In June 2017, the DUP’s 10 MPs rose to prominence after signing a confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservatives, who formed a minority government following a bruising election campaign.
The arrangement, which saw an extra £1bn allocated to Northern Ireland, has been heavily impacted by Brexit, with the DUP withdrawing support for the Government at key votes in protest at the Irish backstop protocol. Despite this tumultuous period, in which Dodds’ frustration with the PM on the matter played out frequently in the Commons, the 60-year-old insists there is enough goodwill for the arrangement to continue going forward.
“I’m very confident that the goodwill is there. The Conservative party and ourselves have agreed this confidence and supply agreement. We have been pretty strong in our support for the Government. We have obviously taken a difference on some of this Brexit stuff but then so have many of her own party,” he explains.
Given the DUP’s experience at negotiations, wouldn’t it have been better to go into coalition to ensure the party had ministers in government? “There have been so many ministers who have now resigned from the Government over this, I’m not sure whether had we gone we would have still been in government by this stage. But, anyway. No, we took the right approach. It’s the best approach for Northern Ireland, the best approach for the Government,” he replies.
The DUP has been at hand to offer advice about the negotiations, Dodds tells me. The party thought it was “catastrophic” for the UK to have signed up to the EU’s sequencing of talks, he adds, and says another “major mistake” came by triggering Article 50 before the Government “had actually got its ducks in a row”. The most “catastrophic error of all”, he continues, was to sign up to the Irish protocol in December 2017.
The Brexit process has exposed ignorance of Northern Irish politics on the mainland. Dodds says it is “galling” to see MPs refer to the province to advance their own version of Brexit, but not attend crucial debates in the Commons on the Northern Ireland budget. “It is very frustrating, but it never ceases to surprise me the people who pop up and talk about Northern Ireland as if they are so concerned about the people of Northern Ireland but show no interest in anything else about Northern Ireland except Brexit.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley has come under fire for her performance. In an interview with The House in September, the Cabinet Minister revealed she did not know before taking on the role that elections in Northern Ireland are fought along constitutional lines, as “people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa”. She also faced calls to resign in March after she said that killings during the Troubles at the hands of the security forces were not crimes.
“Karen obviously has had her problems and difficulties, there’s no doubt about that. The NIO [Northern Ireland Office] has been, in our view, a dysfunctional department for quite a time. It needs strong leadership,” Dodds says.
“I think that Karen has, perhaps, not been as out there in terms of getting across the people in Northern Ireland, talking to them, meeting with groups and all the rest of it, as some of her predecessors. I know that, however, Brexit and the votes here has meant that maybe she hasn’t had as much time. But her basic policy approach has been flawed in the sense that she has decided that Northern Ireland could just stand still, leave it to the civil servants. For that, that’s a glaring failure on her part. She has not taken a grip and shown the leadership that she should have.”
Should there be a change of leadership in the Northern Ireland Office? “I think the Government needs to have a change of leadership in a number of departments, yes, across the board,” Dodds replies.
The power-sharing deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin collapsed in January 2017. Dodds concedes that Brexit has been a “major contributory factor” to the continuing deadlock at Stormont. But he is “very, very confident” that devolution can be restored in the “short to medium term”. “I don’t think the concept of power-sharing is dead because everybody in Northern Ireland is brought into it, they accept it, that’s the default position. People want devolved government. They don’t want to go back to violence. So, all the ingredients are there.”
Dodds, whose wife Diane is an MEP, has experienced a lot during his political and personal career. In 1996, one of his police guards was wounded by an IRA gun attack that took place when he was visiting his son, Andrew, at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children. In 2003, an improvised explosive device left outside his constituency office by the Continuity IRA had to be defused.
As the most extraordinary week in his political career peters out, does he ever regret his decision to choose politics over law? “I do sometimes think that. My mother often says to me, especially when you’re on the TV and there’s a bit of controversy, ‘why didn’t you just become a solicitor and have a quiet life?’,” he replies.
“Look, politics is in your blood or it’s not. If it’s in your blood, then it’s inevitable that you get caught up in all of that. I’ve been very fortunate to be involved in the Northern Ireland Assembly, to have been Lord Mayor of Belfast, and also now to be in parliament at this absolutely critical time with the balance of power that we hold. It’s just amazing. It vindicates my decision.”