22 October 2019

Alienating middle England is a big risk for the DUP


The DUP’s founder, Ian Paisley, had a reputation as the ‘Grand Old Duke of York’ of Northern Ireland politics. According to opponents, he would march his followers up to the top of the hill and to the brink of confrontation before losing his nerve and marching them down again. This imagery came to mind again over the weekend, as a party of perceived Brexit hardliners voted to delay Boris Johnson’s deal and even hinted it could back a second referendum.

In this case, though, the analogy is unfair. Throughout the negotiations, the DUP has messed up, miscalculated, shown poor leadership and compromised its principles, but its message has been consistent. While it believes in Brexit, its priority is maintaining the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Some of its critics believe there is an inherent contradiction in claiming to put the integrity of the UK first but arguing at the same time that we should leave the EU. Brexit was always going to disrupt the balance of loyalties in devolved regions like Northern Ireland and Scotland, they say. It was foolish to raise questions about the constitution and identity when those issues are fiercely contested.

Their concerns were not without foundation, but unionists resent the idea that they weren’t entitled to form a wider view on the nation’s future because of the claims of nationalists who want to break up the Union. Northern Ireland’s place in the UK is guaranteed by the Good Friday Agreement and its voters are entitled to a voice in any nationwide debate.

The DUP and many other unionists came to the conclusion that membership of the EU damaged Britain. They felt the future was brighter outside a vast, bureaucratic organisation, devoted to federalism, that distanced voters from decision-making. The debate in Northern Ireland refreshingly, and for a change, focused mainly on national issues during the referendum.

In response to repeated challenges, the courts have affirmed that nothing in the Belfast Agreement prevents Brexit. There has never been a legal reason that Northern Ireland cannot leave under the same terms as the rest of the country, whatever those terms might be. Whether or not the DUP’s support for Brexit was unwise, the current circumstances were not inevitable. And its opposition to the Government’s deal is not unreasonable. It’s the new converts, who previously opposed Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, whose case is wobbly.

They, Boris Johnson included, argued previously that customs and regulatory borders between Great Britain and Northern Ireland were unacceptable because they weakened the Union. Now, they support an arrangement that adds a tariff barrier to the customs and regulatory checks planned by the previous prime minister.

Under the proposals, Ulster businesses must pay duty on any goods they buy from the British mainland if they’re ‘at risk’ of entering the EU. Any material that is likely to be processed, i.e. any product that might be used in manufacturing, falls under the ‘at risk’ category unless it is specifically exempted by a ‘joint committee’ set up to oversee the agreement’s implementation.

During Saturday’s House of Commons’ debate, Boris Johnson said this would equate to checks on only 1% of goods crossing the Irish Sea. His claim seems to be based on the idea that the joint committee will quickly reduce the category of materials ‘at risk’ from entering the EU. Jacob Rees-Mogg gave a similar undertaking when he briefed a representative of the Northern Ireland Conservatives. Why he suddenly expects such cooperation from a body partly overseen from Brussels is not clear.

Yesterday, the Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay, told the Labour peer, Lord Stewart Wood, that Northern Irish businesses will have to complete export declaration forms to send goods to Great Britain. More details of this type are likely to emerge as the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is examined in detail.

Anger among grassroots unionists in Northern Ireland is palpable. Last night, hundreds of loyalists met in east Belfast to discuss their response to legislation they refer to as ‘the Betrayal Bill’. They believe that nationalists and Leo Varadkar used the threat of republican terror to strengthen their negotiating position. After the meeting, Jamie Bryson, a high profile loyalist activist told reporters, “no-one is trying to stoke violence, but let me say this, it’s good enough for nationalism including the Irish Government to win concessions and drive us into an economic united Ireland”.

There are legitimate arguments that Northern Irish unionists should support the government’s deal. It avoids ‘no deal’ and quells nationalist anger over potential checks at the land border. Business leaders feel it addresses the worst of their fears about ‘crashing out’ of the EU and some have even suggested it puts the province in a favourable economic position, with privileged access to two major markets.

To anyone paying attention, though, these points are very familiar. An almost identical case was mounted when Theresa May tried to get her deal through parliament – particularly in the build-up to the third meaningful vote. The DUP, indeed the vast majority of unionists, counter with the same arguments that they’ve been making all along. A border in the Irish Sea undermines the Union and cuts Northern Ireland off from the rest of the country. The UK must leave as one country.

It’s absurd that, for many politicians and commentators, unionists were right when they opposed Theresa May, and they’re now wrong because they oppose Boris Johnson. The only substantive thing that changed is that their guy is now prime minister. He’s a leaver, he’s entertaining and they like him, while they were fed up with Theresa May and her downbeat, robotic mannerisms.

This change in mood may be vaguely ridiculous and illogical, but for Ulster unionists, it is important and full of risk. Vast swathes of the country, in middle England in particular, are fed up and want Brexit over and done with. They are becoming less receptive to appeals to their unionism and they’re running out of patience with Northern Ireland.

In a new poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft, 74% of Tory leave voters in England said they would choose to leave the EU rather than keep Ulster in the UK, if that choice were available. 76% would prefer Scotland to be independent rather than Brexit being thwarted.

This sentiment is significant for anyone who wants to keep the Union together.

The substance of the argument about a border in the Irish Sea has not changed. But, Northern Irish unionists have to decide whether they are prepared to risk being blamed for frustrating Brexit by making that case.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'