Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Supporting Johnson's Brexit deal is DUP's most dramatic U-turn since power-sharing

Foster's radical change of heart is a pragmatic but welcome policy concession, writes Alban Maginness

Boris Johnson and DUP leader Arlene Foster
Boris Johnson and DUP leader Arlene Foster

Unlike Storm Lorenzo, which was widely predicted to hit our shores last Thursday, Storm Brexit is not likely to oblige us by fizzling out or bypassing these shores. Barring a miracle, Storm Brexit, which has been brewing for the past three years, will hit our shores, wreaking havoc wherever its lands, either north or south of this island.

The insane idea of Brexit may soon materialise as the greatest political, constitutional and economic nightmare for both Britain and Ireland since the Second World War.

During the past week, it is extraordinary that the DUP have executed their biggest U-turn since Ian Paisley entered the power-sharing Executive with Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein in 2007 by openly supporting Boris Johnson's new transition plan with the European Union.

Central to Boris's plan with the EU is that there will be regulatory divergence between here and Britain, so that we will remain within the European Union's single market regime for goods. We will also continue be subject to the rulings of the European Court of Justice.

Up until now, that proposition was anathema to the DUP, who, with unfortunate hyperbole (which they must now regret) described this idea as creating a border down the middle of the Irish Sea.

They repeated this mantra ad nauseam over the past two years and adamantly declared that this was "a blood-red line" issue and they would never support such a scheme as it undermined the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK.

Now they support that arrangement, relying on a dubious face-saving device that this arrangement will have to be approved on a recurrent four-year basis by our currently dormant, though not yet extinct, Assembly.

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This radical change of direction by Arlene Foster and her deputy, Nigel Dodds, on behalf of their party, is a pragmatic but welcome change of policy, presumably to avoid the disaster of a no-deal Brexit or the serious consequences of a hard border.

At last, the penny has dropped for the DUP's leadership.

Doubtless, the persistent lobbying of the business community has borne fruit by eventually persuading the DUP to make a radical departure from their inflexible and illogical position on regulatory divergence between here and the rest of the UK.

This is a sensible change in tune, but unfortunately it falls short of what is also required - and that is Northern Ireland's continued inclusion within the European customs union.

The draft plan submitted by Boris to the European Union has predictably - and not surprisingly - been rejected as inadequate by the EU, including, in particular, the Dublin government led by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Throughout the whole process of the UK's departure from the European Union, Leo Vardkar and his very able deputy, Simon Coveney, have played an honourable role in trying to reach an agreed transitional process.

Therefore, it is outrageous for Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds to accuse Leo Varadkar of "intransigence" and using "incendiary language" in the dismissal of Johnson's latest proposals on a Brexit deal.

Sadly, there has been a litany of churlish and grossly unfair criticisms by unionist and British politicians of the Irish government for being intransigent or obstructive in the way they have dealt with this process.

In fact, the opposite is true, as they sincerely believed that they could use the good relationship between the two governments built up since the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

However, the dark forces of English nationalism and populism intervened, undermining that process and thereby destroying years of patient dialogue and bridge-building between Ireland and Britain that thrived on the basis of mutual membership of that greatest of all peacetime achievements: the European Union.

Brexit has had a toxic impact by destabilising relations within Britain itself, undermining good relations between the Republic and Britain and internally within Northern Ireland by upsetting the delicate calibration of political relationships settled by the Good Friday Agreement.

It should always be borne in mind that the backstop, as a guarantee of the continuance of a seamless, all-Ireland economy, was the creation of Theresa May's government. It was designed to permanently prevent a hard border in Ireland and thereby preserve the integrity of the single market and of the Good Friday Agreement.

The backstop was never the invention of Leo Varadkar or Michel Barnier, but a compromise devised by the British themselves.

The DUP now appears to be like the Devil quoting scripture, shamelessly citing the Good Friday Agreement as support for their current somersault.

This, of course, is merely a sham, as the DUP opposed the agreement from the very beginning and have never formally, nor informally, embraced it.

The fact is they do not give two hoots about it and would be quite happy to see the agreement die.

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