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Jon Tonge: Close alignment with customs union and single market could solve DUP's Brexit conundrum



An anti-Brexit protest in Westminster

An anti-Brexit protest in Westminster

AFP/Getty Images

DUP MP Nigel Dodds

DUP MP Nigel Dodds

AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister Theresa May

Prime Minister Theresa May


Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg

Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg

Getty Images

An anti-Brexit protest in Westminster

Parliament's predictable eight-fold rejection of every Brexit option highlights how all exits from our political crisis are currently blocked.

Look closely though and party abstentions were almost as significant as the no votes in terms of possible ways forward.

The DUP's abstention on the option of a customs union plus single market finally laid to rest a persistent metropolitan myth - long exposed in columns in this newspaper but repeated ad nauseum elsewhere - that the DUP demands a hard Brexit.

The DUP are hard anti-backstoppers, not hard Brexiteers.

The DUP abstained on the vote on a soft Brexit option because it was the only one which would alleviate the need for a backstop.

And they might yet support that such a soft departure. Full UK-wide participation in the customs union and single market is acceptable to the DUP because it does not leave Northern Ireland aligned to the EU in isolation.

It would maintain a soft border, debunking the persistent myth that the DUP wants a hard border.

On Wednesday, the DUP opposed harder Brexit options - such as customs union membership alone - because it would not remove the backstop on which the May-EU withdrawal agreement rests.

The DUP also rejected Labour's fantasy option of membership of 'a' customs union - as if there is an a la carte menu of such unions - in which the UK would miraculously continue to have the right to its own global trade deals and input to those of the EU.

Belatedly, the differences between the European Research Group - obsessed with Brexit - and the DUP - preoccupied only with Northern Ireland's equal Brexit alongside the rest of the UK - have begun to be laid bare. Boris 'bin, ditch and junk the backstop' Johnson won't be getting a repeat slot at the next DUP conference.

Having used the event to launch his Conservative Party ascendancy, any fidelity to the DUP dissolved the moment Theresa May said "support my backstop deal and there's a leadership vacancy".

'Shameless' is too inadequate a word.

Et tu, Jacob 'I'll only change if the DUP moves' Rees-Mogg, you changed as the DUP held steadfast. The DUP conference gig could have been yours, Jacob. I was looking forward to the first such gathering to be addressed in Latin.

Many continue to criticise the DUP. The extensive support for the backstop across Northern Ireland's business and farming communities shows a determination that economic logic ought to trump constitutional politics. Seamless access to EU and UK single markets matters, protecting livelihoods.

To those at risk, this matters more than unproven claims that Northern Ireland's unique alignment to the EU single market would be a constitutional betrayal, jeopardising the Union.

In trying to persuade the DUP onside, the UK Government has made clear that it will not allow regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

In other words, if EU single market regulations change, the Government will adopt them across the UK to protect Northern Ireland's EU and UK trading relationships.

The problem is that the DUP will not trust successor governments to honour that pledge.

A certain mythology has developed over the seamlessness of Northern Ireland's place in the UK single market.

A reader, Alan Brookes, contacted me wondering how many people recalled that some British people from elsewhere in the UK could not work in Northern Ireland from 1947 until 1981 without a work permit.

Such permits (Mr Brookes sent me a copy of his) were issued only to qualified essential workers, with notable exceptions such as members of the Armed Forces, religious ministers and teachers.

Under the old Stormont regime, the Safeguard of Employment Act was designed to create local jobs for local workers. Brookes recalls his final interview with a Northern Ireland engineering firm in 1968. "When they asked did I need a work permit as I was born in England and I stated I did they immediately cooled and I was informed it would be too difficult".

There have long been checks on certain commodities travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and identification is always required.

None of this has threatened the Union, but it has highlighted the distinctiveness of Northern Ireland.

If the backstop worked well, it might possibly stem the rising demands of nationalists for constitutional change via a border poll and shore up the Union. After all, Northern Ireland only looks vaguely secure when it is economically prosperous and politically functioning.

Rarely, in other words.

The DUP's intransigence has been matched by the EU steadfastly refusing to change a single word of the withdrawal agreement.

There might be something faintly ridiculous about the chancelleries of Europe standing paralysed before Sammy Wilson, Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster, but it's where we are.

The DUP will never back the backstop in its current form. Amid all the noise, the party has at least been consistent, wanting a deal, but clear that no backstop removal equals no deal.

What more can Theresa May do to sell her agreement given she has laid down her political life for the bargain? Rename it St Andrews perhaps?

The withdrawal agreement is as unsellable to the DUP as it is unchangeable for the EU. May's promise to stand down if her deal passes could be the longest resignation note in history. It is utterly irrelevant to the DUP. And the DUP do not fear a general election.

Charting a way forward, if the DUP does believe that UK-wide customs union and single market alignment to the EU solves the backstop conundrum, why not vote for it, rather than abstain, if another opportunity arises?

For the DUP, it's all about UKexit, not Brexit.

  • Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of books on the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party
  • Belfast Telegraph