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Analysis

Might Tory Brexiters ditch DUP if push comes to shove?

by Bruce Clark | 13.12.2017

Anybody who has looked after an obstreperous adolescent will find the dynamic familiar. The teenager tries to turn every issue, small or large, into a fight which must be won at someone else’s cost. The guardian figure struggles to keep the conversation mature and insist that there might be ways forward which serve everybody. But when someone is determined to pick quarrels, it can be hard not to descend to that person’s level.

Reactions on the island of Ireland to last Friday’s agreement in Brussels could be described along those lines. The leaders of the DUP outdid their own past form in being pointlessly pugnacious. What troubled them was that, whatever its pros and cons for their own party, the agreement seemed quite satisfactory to Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister.

Ian Paisley junior, son and namesake of the DUP founder, insisted nastily that the taoiseach was only pretending to be pleased, when the truth was that Dublin’s nefarious effort to separate Northern Ireland from Great Britain had just been foiled. “Whatever efforts are made to characterise this week, Leo Varadkar was done over by the EU, the UK and the DUP.”

Revealing the depths of his Manichean, almost cold-war thinking, he gloatingly predicted that a no-deal Brexit, although ”challenging” for Northern Ireland’s food exports, would be vastly worse for the Irish republic. Indeed the republic’s economy would be “crippled” by the tariffs that would face its food exports to the UK. Such a prospect should “put the fear of the Almighty into the republic”, he predicted.

With this mindset among her lieutenants, it becomes easier to understand why Arlene Foster, in presenting the agreement, felt compelled to offer an assurance that far from portending political peace, it left the way open for big political battles. She has forecast that these contests will take place, above all, within the Conservative Party, and that DUP will be joining the fray, fighting alongside the hard Brexiters whatever the cost might be for their own region.

Magnanimous Varadkar

Faced with people who are so determined to construct him as enemy, it is hard for Varadkar to convince them that he is in fact rooting for the common, indeed common-sense, interests of people across Ireland. But he did his best, taking space in the Belfast Telegraph to insist that he understood and respected the unionist community and he had no desire to impose a united Ireland against the wishes of people in the north. Nor did he want to see a border “down the Irish Sea” which is the DUP’s greatest nightmare.

In fact, he does have good reason to be pleased, and hence magnanimous in his tactical victory.  The accord struck in Brussels may only be a gentleman’s agreement, albeit a very important one, as an EU spokesman put it. But the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is a powerful diplomatic instrument, and Varadkar has won an assurance about its interpretation:  cross-border trade will not be disrupted in ways that undermine that agreement.

What if Tories ditch DUP?

Deeper down, the realities which underlay last week’s frenetic negotiations remain intact. A hard inter-Irish border will inevitably undermine the Good Friday Agreement, giving Dublin and the nationalists of Northern Ireland good reason to cry foul. There are only two ways to avoid this: either the UK as a whole will opt for a softish Brexit, so that neither the Irish Sea nor the inter-Irish frontier will become a barrier to trade. Or alternatively, Great Britain will go for a hard Brexit and consign Northern Ireland to a softish one.

Whatever their masochistic determination to do battle for a splendidly isolated Albion, that is a troubling thought for the DUP. If politicians on the Conservative right saw ditching Northern Ireland as the only way to achieve a hard border for Great Britain, some might be prepared to pay it.

Sammy Wilson, an ardent DUP Brexiter who sits in the House of Commons and interacts often with Conservative colleagues, came up with a revealing turn of phrase over the weekend. He said that “he hate(s) these terms, soft Brexit and hard Brexit – you either leave the EU or you don’t”.  That suggests he may have picked up the new Conservative mood music which holds that tactical concessions, even painful ones, may be a necessary price to pay for the desired outcome of leaving the EU. But what if London’s preferred tactical concession, not for the first time in history, turns out to be abandoning Ulster?

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

2 Responses to “Might Tory Brexiters ditch DUP if push comes to shove?”

  • The leading Brexiteers are already getting worried that their historic reputations will be shot if Brexit is not the success that they claim it will be. Just imagine their fear for their reputations if they were seen to damage the Good Friday agreement by bringing back borders to Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement seems to be one of the few firm”pegs in the ground” unless of course, David Davis announces that it was just another “statement of intent”

  • DUP you must be joking. DUP will definitely ditch MAY they have proved so. If they had any real affinity to May why did they need 1.5 billion. The tail wags the dog. May is really leads a minority government. Even Major had problems with a small majority, he commanded more respect than May.