Jon Tonge

Beyond the improbable scenario of 80 Conservative ERG and 10 DUP MPs shifting the will of 27 EU member states and rewriting the EU Withdrawal Agreement, it is worth examining what hardline Brexit unionist forces really want. With Theresa May still on mission impossible, seeking a codicil here or a new legally-binding paragraph there, what kind of Brexit does Northern Ireland’s strongest electoral force truly desire?

Whilst the DUP is united in opposition to the backstop, the party’s approach has not been entirely consistent. The belligerent, backstop-free rhetoric of Brexit spokesman, Sammy Wilson, has moved in recent days towards the time-limited backstop aspiration of DUP leader Arlene Foster. The party’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, has been circumspect, never definitively ruling out continuing UK alignment to the EU Customs Union and Single Market, provided that Northern Ireland’s Brexit-lite departure was identical to the rest of the UK.

The Conservatives’ European Research Group (ERG) Brexiteers have been happy to use DUP opposition to the backstop to take on the EU Withdrawal Agreement. Relations between the group and the DUP are cordial, reflected in the presence of Nigel Dodds in the Brexiteers’ ‘Star Chamber’, adjudicating on whether the backstop has been removed (spoiler: it won’t be). 

For all the bonhomie, ‘DUP-ERG’ is not a united entity. Many in the ERG are ‘clean-breakers’ from the EU, content for the UK to leave without a deal and with minimal interest in Northern Ireland, beyond ritualistic unionist rhetoric. The DUP’s position is less obsessed with a clean break from the EU and more concerned that the terms of UK departure are identical across the Union. Whilst both groupings may be en route to their ‘special place in Hell’ allocated by the President of the European Council – awkward for the DUP as they are more likely to believe in eternal damnation – the DUP supports an identikit Brexit, not a hard one. 

As it abandoned Paisleyite denunciations of the EU as a Catholic club, a problem undetected by any other party across Europe, the DUP’s Euroscepticism shifted from scripture to sovereignty. This slight softening allowed the party, prior to the Brexit referendum, to support David Cameron’s attempts to renegotiate EU membership. The 2017 DUP election manifesto lamented the EU’s ‘deafness to change in those negotiations’, which meant that the DUP, unlike the UUP, preserved its opposition to the EU. It begs the question why the DUP thinks the EU will no longer be hard of hearing regarding the Withdrawal Agreement. 

In supporting Brexit, the DUP is in tune with its voters, 70% of whom backed Leave. They remain unrepentant. At the last General Election, two-thirds of DUP voters still backed Brexit. But the DUP had not expected a Leave vote in 2016 and had undertaken zero preparations for such an eventuality.  

Many question the wisdom of the DUP’s opposition to the backstop, given the acute potential economic damage to Northern Ireland in the case of a no deal Brexit. There is fracture between political and business unionism, the latter relishing unfettered access to the EU and UK single markets. 

The DUP’s fear is that without a unilateral entitlement to end the backstop, Northern Ireland will be forever placed closer to the rest of Ireland and the EU – and it was always unlikely that any unionist party would acquiesce. The onetime Remain-supporting UUP also dislikes the backstop. The Withdrawal Agreement creates potential barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland for goods heading to the EU Single Market. A joint UK-EU committee will review arrangements “with a view to avoiding, to the extent possible, controls at the ports and airports of Northern Ireland”.  GB-NI-EU regulatory divergence is a long way off, so the impact will be very modest – for now. 

Having sold the backstop to largely receptive Northern Irish communities beyond the unionist parties in December, Mrs May alienated those erstwhile supporters in disavowing her own handiwork and seeking its amendment or deletion, wasting time. That’s straight from the Chris Grayling School of Competence. There is frustration that the DUP does not speak for all Northern Ireland. They don’t, but nor do any of the parties. The anger at the absence of the devolved Executive is also futile. The idea that a DUP-Sinn Fein First and Deputy First Ministership would have brought coherence takes political fantasy to a new level.

The PM now heads back to the Commons on 12 March, selling her original position that the backstop is a good idea. Assuming Mrs May’s sales pitch does not work, the likely outcome is delayed EU departure. Although unlikely, the delay might involve the UK holding elections to the European Parliament. At least Northern Ireland has considerable experience of staging elections where no-one ends up taking their seats – see Assembly contests passimand Sinn Fein in Westminster elections. Postponing departure would also give the DUP time to quietly develop the revised strategy the party seems likely to need.  

 

This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association (PSA) and Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI).

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of recent books on the DUP and UUP. 

Image: Albert Bridge