‘They have fired a shot over the government’s bows by abstaining from amendments to the Finance Bill last night and are now openly saying that the ‘confidence and supply’ agreement established after the 2017 General Election, that allows Theresa May’s minority government to remain in power, will be reconsidered unless the Withdrawal Agreement is revised.
‘The DUP’s Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson has been a leading DUP voice in this regard and has said repeatedly that while they had stuck to their side of the bargain –the government was reneging on theirs.
‘The problem for the DUP, is that they signed a Faustian Pact that is now, inevitably, turning sour. They believed the government was going to deliver a Brexit that would apply to all of the UK consistently – underwriting the fact that Northern Ireland was a part of the Union in exactly the same way as the rest of the country. This red line was described as ‘blood red’ by DUP leader Arlene Foster, when asked about the party’s willingness to compromise on it.
‘Its reading of the Withdrawal Agreement however, (and the DUP is an experienced sifter of constructive ambiguity in the legalese of political agreements) is that the Backstop aspect places different and more involved conditions on Northern Ireland than it does on the rest of the UK.
‘They are right about that – because it does.
‘Their fear is two-fold: First, that symbolically this treats Northern Ireland as a special case within the UK –rather than an integral part of it – more like Gibraltar than Godalming, more like the Falklands than Folkestone. And unionists are acutely aware that today’s Gibraltar can become tomorrow’s Hong Kong, so they are hyper-sensitive about the political symbolism of the special treatment for Northern Ireland implied within the Withdrawal Agreement.
‘Secondly, the DUP fears that this special treatment of Northern Ireland will in practice, over time, result in a slow but inexorable drift away from Great Britain in a way that loosens the Union and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within it.
‘The fact that the DUP is having to so publicly call out the government on the deal demonstrates the weakness rather than the strength of its position. The DUP is now badly exposed on Brexit. While the smaller Ulster Unionist Party has also condemned the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, it is blaming the DUP for delivering it through its partnership with the government.
‘More importantly perhaps, outside of political unionism, a range of voices are lining up across civil society, notably from business leaders and the Ulster Farmers Union (traditionally an agricultural association with strong links to the unionist community) in support of the Withdrawal Agreement. The point is being made repeatedly to the DUP that the current deal is actually quite good for Northern Ireland and would avoid the need for a hard border in Ireland. As a result, the DUP is sounding increasingly shrill and dogmatic, with Sammy Wilson accusing the UFU and business groups of being ‘puppets of the Northern Ireland Office’. They are looking increasingly isolated in Northern Ireland and in London it is becoming clear that the DUP tail is not wagging the Tory dog at this point in the Brexit negotiations.
‘Brexit is full of ironic dimensions and one of them may turn out to be that while the DUP thought its support for Brexit would strengthen the Union and reinforce Northern Ireland’s place within it –the outcome could be the opposite – hastening rather than distancing the prospect of Irish reunification.
‘In truth, Faustian Pacts rarely end happily. The DUP may find that in exchange for a few years of influence, when they seemed to have the ear of the most powerful in the land, they, like the Eponymous hero himself, will be eternally enslaved when time runs out.
‘If the government is unable to get its Withdrawal Agreement through parliament, that time will run out on 29 March 2019.’
Feargal Cochrane is vice chair of the Political Studies Association and professor of International Conflict Analysis at the University of Kent. He is director of the Conflict Analysis Research Centre and deputy head of the School of Politics and International Relations at Kent. His current research is examining the impact of Brexit on the peace process in Northern Ireland and its devolved institutions.
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