One of the unexpected effects of Brexit has been the big reveal that government ministers have very little understanding of, or interest in, Northern Ireland politics. The 2017 election gave the DUP the casting vote in Brexit negotiations, and they show every sign of sticking to their red lines to the very end, yet government ministers remain mystified by the DUP’s unwillingness to step back from their red lines.
Most reports of the negotiations regard the DUP’s intransigence as somewhat overdone for what is basically a trade issue – and one that, truth be told, would be likely to work out to the benefit of the Northern Ireland economy. Conservative MPs are now asking what they’re getting for their £1billion handout, while others are briefing that the DUP could be dropped in favour of a reliance on votes from other parties. In return the DUP are threatening to depose Theresa May and install a Conservative leader more to their liking.
Every impact report shows that leaving the single market would cost jobs and harm industry and business. Given that the backstop would in effect keep Northern Ireland in the single market you might think that the DUP would be glad to have the boost to their region’s economy. If he could get away with it, it’s not impossible to imagine Sadiq Khan arguing that the Channel Tunnel should keep London in the single market due to the effective border with France, but that might be a stretch.
What seems to escape everyone’s attention is that this isn’t just about trade arrangements. It’s also about governance, sovereignty and identity. As a result the Tories have no chance of persuading the DUP to change their stance.
The DUP know that, given how long it takes to put together a trade deal, even under exceptional circumstances (and on past evidence the negotiating ability of the UK government with the EU is not that), the implementation of the backstop is inevitable.
Once in force, Northern Ireland would in effect remain within the single market, subject to rules set by Brussels, in which the Republic of Ireland would have a say while London would not. Sinn Fein will continue to be a political force in the Republic – meaning that they and the Republic would have more influence over the single market, and hence the Northern Ireland economy, than London or Stormont.
With no legal status in the EU, Stormont would have little to no influence over the rules governing the economy that would dictate its trade and economic rules. British and Northern Ireland diplomats in Brussels would have to influence decisions from the outside with zero decision making power, competing with thousands of other lobbyists. This may feel like quite a come down from having a seat at the table and a veto over any changes in regulation or policy.
This would doubtless have a positive impact on the Northern Ireland economy since it would still have access to, and practically be part of, the single market, but the likelihood of the DUP agreeing not only to cast Northern Ireland adrift from the UK in terms of regulation, but also to hand the power to set those regulations not only to Brussels, but also to Dublin (influenced by Sinn Fein), is near zero.
In practical terms lots of good would result – the border would remain open, meaning that trade and, just as importantly, people’s daily lives could continue as they are now, safeguarding the Good Friday Agreement and breathing new life into the peace process.
For the DUP however the measure is not a viable economy and an open border. These are people whose whole career has been about keeping close to London and away from Dublin, maintaining the union with the wider UK and opposing any agreement, political or economic, which would disrupt this link or create closer ties with Dublin. It is not far fetched to see the backstop as a significant step towards a united Ireland, all the more given that most Conservative voters (and doubtless many Conservative MPs) would prioritise Brexit over the union. The unionist part of the Conservatives name perhaps should be quietly dropped.
As a result May remains caught between the DUP and the Tory Brexiters, whose dream is the fantasy of bespoke trade deals. Some are already planning for a bonfire of regulations and a fire sale of the NHS. Such deals, if possible at all, would take years to negotiate and almost certainly be agreed on worse terms than the deals we have as members of the EU, given our vastly reduced negotiating power.
From their perspective, therefore, the DUP’s stance makes perfect sense. They have absolute power as a party at the very moment that the future of Northern Ireland, both in economic and political terms, is being decided. To expect them to throw in the towel and to give any future say over Northern Ireland away, possibly forever, just because it makes life hard for Theresa May or the Tory Brexiters is to misunderstand the DUP, and to misunderstand Northern Ireland.