Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: 'Northern Ireland plc took its Brexit case to Downing Street because there was no one at home on the Hill'

Theresa May is courting the business community for her own ends as she desperately tries to get her Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament, says Alex Kane

For six months after the EU referendum, it looked as though the political parties - particularly the DUP and Sinn Fein - would be able to reach consensus on a soft-landing approach to Brexit.

In August 2016, Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster wrote to Theresa May: "We are reassured by your commitment that we will be fully involved and represented in the negotiations on the terms of our future relationships with the EU and other countries. We regard this as a fundamental prerequisite of a meaningful negotiation process."

In November 2016, they penned a joint article for the local media: "It's hardly a secret that our two parties come from very different places and have very different ideologies. However, that should not and will not stop us working together on day-to-day, bread-and-butter issues. Brexit is a case in point. Our parties have opposing standpoints on this important issue. That hasn't prevented us agreeing a practical way forward as Executive ministers - identifying the key priorities as the negotiations unfold."

Broadly speaking, that was good enough for local business, manufacturing, retail, tourism, construction and farming organisations here. They were confident that their concerns and interests would be listened to by the Executive and represented at all levels of negotiation before and after Article 50 was triggered.

They were similarly confident that the Executive would speak with one voice and that the DUP and Sinn Fein would be prepared to compromise for the collective common good in Northern Ireland.

But that confidence collapsed along with the collapse of the Executive and Assembly just a few months later, in January 2017.

And, once the DUP signed its "confidence and supply" deal with the Conservatives five months later, it became clear that there would no longer be a "common good" voice speaking on behalf of Northern Ireland.

Frustratingly for local organisations, the ongoing lack of an Assembly also meant they had no Executive, ministers, or MLAs to lobby.

So, it is a nonsense for some in the DUP, Sammy Wilson in particular, to claim that the representatives of organisations who have been to Downing Street in the past week are, in his word, "puppets".

Who else are these people supposed to lobby? There is no government in Northern Ireland. There is no jointly agreed Executive policy, or strategy. And even if the Withdrawal Agreement doesn't get through the Commons on December 11, there is no evidence that the DUP has an alternative that has been talked through with any of these organisations.

And that's why the leaders of these organisations are angry. Irrespective of what happens on March 29, 2019, these organisations need clarity and certainty. They also need something resembling stability.

They must plan years ahead. They can't just make it up as they go along.

Since the early-1970s, they have tended to "keep out of politics", preferring, instead, to encourage the sort of environment in which Northern Ireland could become a good place for investment, employment, tourism and economic growth. So, whatever their personal constitutional preferences may have been, they were reluctant to attack political parties.

That is no longer the case. They are angry with the DUP. And they are making it very loud and very clear that they are angry with the DUP.

Speaking after a meeting with Theresa May last Thursday, Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, said: "We would hope that not just the DUP, but all parties in parliament, would rally around this Withdrawal Agreement, rally around the political declaration and let's move on to a more positive, substantive future relationship conversation." That remained the view of the business organisations after their meeting with Mrs May yesterday.

Responding after her own meeting with Mrs May, Arlene Foster didn't even mention the business organisations: "We should not be pressurised into accepting a deal that senior figures, including the Chancellor, have said is bad for the economy and bad for the Union, because of a false choice that there is no alternative. There is another way. This is not a binary choice. We need to explore that third way."

What this boils down to is that the DUP (along with the UUP and other unionist parties) is reading the Withdrawal Agreement from a constitutional perspective. Whether or not the agreement makes economic sense for Northern Ireland is not their priority: it's whether the agreement opens and then leaves open the door to a situation in which Northern Ireland is not treated in the same way as the rest of the UK a few years down the line.

In other words, the constitutional position trumps the economic argument.

That was always going to be the case. And it's something that has raised concerns for MPs across all parties.

My own view is that the business organisations - and others from so-called "civic society" - don't fully understand the political/constitutional significance and ramifications of the Withdrawal Agreement and, consequently, don't understand why it presents such a problem for unionism.

And that's why it would have made sense if the DUP, rather than leaving almost everything to Mrs May and threatening her every now and again, had conducted a lengthy and deep consultation with these organisations over the past couple of years. It would also have made sense to have conducted a similar consultation with the Irish government and Irish parties.

Economic stability and political stability go hand-in-hand: they are interdependent. So, when the leading party of Northern Ireland doesn't represent the opinion of the majority on such a crucial issue as Brexit, then the last thing it needs is the opening of a second front with business organisations.

As I've said, it's no surprise that those organisations, in the absence of an Assembly to lobby, have taken their case to Westminster.

And it is no surprise that Mrs May is now courting them for her own purposes.

Her tour of the UK is her way of using "soft power" to persuade key non-political players to lobby MPs on her behalf. She wants the "ordinary" people she met yesterday - including academics, business, clergy and students - to contact Labour and Tory MPs and explain to them the very specific dangers to Northern Ireland of rejecting her agreement. She needs any vote from any MP - this tour is just one way of doing that.

Whether it works is anyone's guess: although it seems unlikely enough MPs can be swung at this point.

One thing is clear, though: whatever happens on December 11, the DUP needs to rethink its approach to the "puppets".

Northern Ireland's future in the United Kingdom doesn't just depend on what the DUP thinks.

Belfast Telegraph

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