The folly of the DUP

March 1, 2018

by Martin Odoni

The current state of Brexit has its ironies, the most nauseating probably being this week’s one-hundred-and-eighty-degree U-turn by Boris Johnson. A bare three months ago, the Foreign Secretary was publicly attacking the notion of a fully-enforced border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as a result of withdrawal from the European Union as ‘madness’. But it has now emerged that Johnson has been advising the Prime Minister not to try and prevent a ‘hard’ border in Ireland. Typically, almost no one in the media has bothered drawing attention to his total reversal.

But perhaps the most tragic irony of the current state-of-play is the stance of the Democratic Unionist Party. It is brought into focus by today’s publication by the European Union of a default fallback plan, to take effect should negotiations for a trade deal for the UK break down once and for all. The plan suggests that when Great Britain withdraws from the EU completely, Northern Ireland would be the sole part of the UK to remain in the Customs Union.

Were this plan to be put into effect – the EU have no particular wish to do it but may be forced to pursue it – it would effectively mean Northern Ireland is reunited with the Republic in all-but-name, and becomes divided off from the United Kingdom, again in all-but-name. This would be because, while there would be no active border between the two Irelands, a boundary would have to be enforced at the coastline. That would mean that there would be a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. (Not placing a border either inland or at the sea would mean that the UK would continue to have an open border with the EU. This would surely defeat one of the main, most-often-cited reasons for Brexit in the first place of “the UK taking back control of its borders” – the untrue assumption being that the UK’s border controls are forcibly dropped by EU membership.)

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has clearly felt compelled to come up with this plan for Northern Ireland, as the British Government seems incapable of getting its act together and coming up with a plan of its own before the deadline in October. The difficulty the British Government has is understandable. A ‘Hard Brexit’ i.e. total severance from the EU would put the peace in Ireland in jeopardy, for reasons I have outlined before. Keeping Northern Ireland in the Customs Union, and even in the Single Market, while the island of Great Britain withdraws, might well keep Republican and Nationalist resentment in check.

But if the Government lets this plan proceed, it would be no guarantee of peace. On the contrary, it would be an effective Conservative Party sell-out of the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP’s support is all that is propping up this shambling, stumbling Government, but being Unionists, the DUP is precisely the last party in the House of Commons that could stomach the idea of a border at the sea, and of Northern Irish citizens requiring passports to enter the rest of the UK – doubly so when there is a relaxed border at the Lenamore Road.

Having finally received the ‘offer’ she had been demanding (and logically had no particular right to expect – so much for her pre-election boasts about her negotiation skills), Theresa May sneered at Prime Minister’s Questions this afternoon that no British Prime Minister could accept Barnier’s plan, as it “threatens” the UK’s internal common market and its constitutional integrity. But as the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has publicly noted, May’s sneers are no more than sneers; if she does not come up with an alternative plan – one that is somehow acceptable to Nationalists/Republicans, Unionists, and Brexiteers alike – then she will probably end up allowing Barnier’s plan to happen by default. At which point, Northern Ireland will in every practical sense cease to be a real part of the United Kingdom, and be more strongly re-aligned to the South than it has been since before the Irish Civil War. That is absolutely not what Unionists in the province will have expected or wanted to result from the alliance between the Tories and the DUP.

Herein is the bewildering contradiction; the DUP, the most hardline, right-wing, Unionist political party, is propping up the very Government that could be about to allow Northern Ireland, effectively, to be joined-at-the-hip once more to Dublin.

Whatever people elsewhere in the UK might feel about that – in most cases probably nothing at all –  a hard sea border between Ireland and the UK would create the exact mirror-image of the problem a hard inland Irish border would create. An inland border would revive Nationalist resentments, potentially even seeing a resurgence of the militancy of the 1970s-to-the-1990s. But a sea border instead would generate resentment on the other side of Northern Irish society; former Loyalist paramilitaries will be watching the next few months with deep feelings of suspicion, resentment, anger, and, should Barnier’s proposal be adopted, ultimately betrayal. And when militants feel betrayed, violence usually follows. They may attack DUP members who have ‘let them down’. Or they might look further, and feel that it is the Tories who have abandoned them and deserve ‘comeuppance’. Not a happy prospect, but a realistic one.

Either way, there are those in the DUP who must now be feeling a little foolish. They have allowed themselves to be trapped in the same needless ring-of-fire that the Tories lit by starting the Brexit debacle to begin with.

That ring-of-fire, it seems, is the figurative circle that cannot be squared.

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3 Responses to “The folly of the DUP”

  1. Barry Davies Says:

    It’s Barnier creating the problem by not understanding what he is messing with, just like the rest of his train crash lack of experience in this area of interaction

    • Martin Odoni Says:

      But Barnier is simply negotiating on behalf of the Irish Government, Barry. I think we can be confident that Varadkar will have got him up to speed on all of the important details a long time ago. And no disrespect intended, but I suspect Varadkar knows a lot more about it than you do as well.

      Let’s try it this way; what is YOUR solution to the Irish border problem? It has to be one there is reasonable hope can be agreed by Unionists, Nationalists AND the hardline Brexiteers in Parliament.

      I have put this question to a lot of Brexit supporters on social media over the last few months, and they all go silent or talk around it. Let’s see if you can do any better.


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