Could DUP be shafted by Irish Sea border in Brexit deal?

by Luke Lythgoe | 26.02.2018

Theresa May’s fudged deal from December is starting to crack over Ireland. The only realistic way of avoiding a hard land border – unless she accepts Jeremy Corbyn’s new policy of staying in a customs union with the EU – is throwing up a new one in the Irish Sea. If this happens, the Tories’ DUP allies will feel like they’ve been shafted. The question is, will they shaft May in return?

The problem has returned as the EU drafts its legal text of the UK’s exit treaty, reported by RTE, the Irish state broadcaster, over the weekend. The text will be revealed on Wednesday, but it’s already clear that, while it will promise to avoid border controls in Ireland, it won’t include a passage in December’s joint report between the UK and EU also insisting on “no new regulatory barriers” between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The EU insists this is an internal UK matter. Not surprising, when you imagine the outcry from Brexiters if Brussels started stipulating how the UK’s internal market should function.

However, this does leave an awkward ball in the UK’s court. If May wants no land border she could end up taking the “fall back” option of regulatory alignment in hundreds of areas between Northern Ireland and the EU – as agreed in December. If she doesn’t want this alignment to be UK-wide, she’ll need customs checks at Northern Irish ports and airports. But the DUP, propping up May’s minority government, won’t stand for it.

Up to now, May has insisted that another solution can be found, either within a special EU-UK partnership or via clever technology. The EU still sees this as “magical thinking”. If these solutions aren’t forthcoming, the next logical solution is a sea border. The DUP will get shafted.

The DUP aren’t daft. The signs that this might happen have been there since December, not least implied in a Telegraph column by Michael Gove, as InFacts wrote at the time.

But the unionists still have a trump card: withdrawing support from May’s minority government. The question is when they might play it. Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Brexit spokesperson, has cryptically warned that the EU “chancing its arm” over alignment would be opposed by his party and involve “difficulties” for May’s government. Meanwhile the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, has told the prime minister not to count on DUP MPs to “turn up” and vote with her at Westminster, according to The Sunday Times. The most obvious future flashpoint is if the EU forces the UK to agree an exit text before striking a transition deal. But, frankly, the DUP could pull the rug at any time.

May fudged her way through the first phase of the Brexit talks, but fudge tends to melt when people turn up the heat. If the rocky road May is travelling with the DUP runs out, her Brexit plans and her government will be left in a sticky mess.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon