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Brexit: Relationship between DUP and Sinn Fein is now under pressure

Everything has changed, but the DUP and SF must still govern together and do a better job of singing from the same hymn sheet, says Alex Kane

Published 27/06/2016

Prime Minister David Cameron outside 10 Downing Street, London, where he announced his resignation
Prime Minister David Cameron outside 10 Downing Street, London, where he announced his resignation

oh dear, it wasn't meant to be like this. Most people - even the most ardent champions of the Leave camp - reckoned that Remain would win, albeit not comfortably, and that political life would return to normal.

My own view was that the DUP were genuine in their opposition to continuing membership, but would still have been happy enough to wipe their brow, heave a sigh of relief and get back to the day job once the referendum was over and Remain had won. And the same with Sinn Fein, who wanted a Remain win because a victory for 'little England' would give them the sort of political headache they didn't want to deal with at this point. The unexpected result has now triggered the need to deal with the unexpected and unprepared-for consequences.

One of those consequences is that the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein - which has been pretty good since they both signed off on the Fresh Start Agreement last November - is now going to change.

With Cameron's resignation, a new Prime Minister being chosen in October and the need for a strong parliamentary mandate to negotiate the UK's exit from the EU over the next two years, it strikes me that an early general election is inevitable; probably by the spring of 2017 at the latest. And once parties go into election mode, particularly in Northern Ireland, then the old 'dreary steeples' mentality comes into play.

That said, it could also be a particularly interesting election here, because much of the debate will focus on what happens to Northern Ireland during those exit negotiations.

The SDLP, SF, Alliance, UUP and Greens (all of whom backed Remain) will be warning of the dire economic consequences of the exit and the DUP will come under enormous pressure for hard answers. They were mostly able to avoid those hard answers during the referendum campaign - where they settled for the 'it'll be alright on the night' approach - but that won't be possible in an election on the back of a Leave result.

Foster won't be able to play the 'McGuinness or me as First Minister' card; and she has the additional problem that Remain carried the day in Northern Ireland with a 56% majority.

I wonder, by the way, what the UUP would do in those circumstances? Would they consider an election pact - the only way they will keep Tom Elliott's Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat - or would they prioritise holding their present two MPs over their fundamental differences with the DUP on EU membership? My betting is that a pact would be agreed, because the UUP executive has lost the electoral confidence it had a few months ago; and because key figures within the party have told me that their pro-EU stance was a "very significant factor" in their unexpectedly bad Assembly result.

Another consequence of the Leave result is the difficulty the DUP and Sinn Fein will have when it comes to the issue of post-EU funding. It is generally agreed that Northern Ireland has been a net beneficiary of that funding and, so far, there have been no guarantees of what happens after 2019/20. No one - and I really do mean no one - has any idea what the economic priorities of a Brexit government and Chancellor of the Exchequer will be, let alone the challenges the United Kingdom will face outside the EU.

Over the next few years, Arlene Foster, Martin McGuinness, Mairtin O Muilleoir (Finance) and Simon Hamilton (Economy) will be spending a lot of their time on conference calls and face-to-face meetings with the new Chancellor, trying to establish how the EU funding will be replaced. Sammy Wilson argues that "it's only our own money that we're getting back," but he knows, as do the DUP, that the priorities of a Brexit government are not the priorities of the EU. And both the DUP and SF also probably realise that, in the words of the economist Richard Ramsey, "it's game over" for the Executive's key policy of slashing corporation tax in 2018.

These are problems that SF and the DUP didn't expect to have to deal with, which is why the Fresh Start Agreement and draft Programme for Government (PfG) didn't really factor Brexit into their long-term strategy. Both parties will have to think on their feet and sing from the same hymn sheet - something that they haven't done very well since 2007. It may also be necessary to recall the PfG, which has been distributed for public consultation, because a Northern Ireland outside the EU will soon no longer have to comply with existing EU rules and regulations. Put bluntly, the rules of the game have changed and changed utterly and the Executive is going to have to acknowledge and address that reality.

And while they're dealing with a Brexit government in London, they will also have to keep an eye on London/Dublin/Brussels negotiations about what is going to happen to the border, cross-border trade and the political relationship between the two governments.

It's already clear that Sinn Fein believe that the result has shifted the dynamics in their favour in terms of Irish unity (they seem to think that it's more likely now than it was this time last week), but I think they need to tread very carefully and tone down their excitement.

It is in the interests of both the Irish and UK governments to maintain the very good personal relationship which has developed since the mid-1980s: particularly since neither of them assumes that a return to violence and instability can be ruled out if the relationship deteriorates; and Dublin also knows the critical importance of the UK to their economic well-being.

So the Irish government will not be pushing for a border poll and Brussels will probably take a fairly relaxed view of any 'special arrangements' (done in the name of the peace process and political stability) that London and Dublin may reach.

The consequences of what happened on June 23 are seismic. Nothing is the same. All bets are off. Nothing can be taken for granted. Nothing can be assumed. The very mechanics of how we govern ourselves have changed. Those consequences will have a deeper, broader impact in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the United Kingdom. The DUP sniff victory. Sinn Fein fear loss. Yet they must now find a way of dealing with the one remaining, slightly awkward reality: they must still govern Northern Ireland together.

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