Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Whatever happens next, Boris Johnson is still best-placed to safeguard the Union... the alternative, Jeremy Corbyn, is unthinkable

The DUP would be much better off working with the Prime Minister to ensure their concerns are fully addressed in the horse-trading that will follow Brexit, argues Eilis O'Hanlon

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (House of Commons/PA)
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

As they did the usual tour of Sunday morning political talk shows, unionists must surely have been thinking that the old cliche about a week being a long time in politics urgently needs to be updated. A day is now an eternity.

So-called “Super Saturday” was a damp squib in the end, though at least Remainer MPs finally stopped pretending their only aim was to avoid no deal. They’re out to keep Britain in the EU, whether voters like it or not.

The DUP were in a much more unenviable position. The party’s 10 MPs are in sincere dismay at the deal which Boris Johnson brought back from Brussels, even if painting it as “betrayal” is hardly designed to lower temperatures.

In truth, it makes no more sense to say Boris betrayed the DUP than it does to say that they betrayed him by voting for the Letwin amendment which stymied his withdrawal agreement. Politicians work together when it’s in their mutual interests. The DUP is no different. Everyone gets let down by those they trust at some point. That’s the nature of the beast.

Unfortunately, the delirium about unionist betrayal is also being shamelessly whipped up by Remainers, with no thought for the consequences in Northern Ireland at a time when loyalists are, disgracefully, said to be planning mass civil disorder in protest at Boris’s deal, and, to their disrepute, Arlene Foster and other senior figures are meeting with paramilitaries to discuss Brexit.

The result is that the DUP is more isolated than ever. There has never been much love lost for unionists in Britain, but Sunday’s newspaper headlines must have made for more than usually painful reading.       

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The DUP’s Sammy Wilson was eloquent and persuasive when he got to his feet in the Commons on Less-Than-Super Saturday. He pointed out that nationalists had claimed repeatedly that a single camera or extra piece of paperwork required at the Irish border would have represented an outrageous breach of the Belfast Agreement, yet now seem to expect unionists to roll over and accept an entirely new system of customs and tariffs between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Nationalists cannot have it both ways.

Last week the DUP simply ran out of road, and suddenly realised they could have Brexit or the Union, but might not be able to have both.

The DUP’s fear that this deal will over time weaken the Union is not unreasonable; but it was the DUP’s backing of Brexit which brought this situation about, and their mistake hitherto was thinking that they could go on indefinitely without resolving those contradictions.

When it chose to back Leave, the DUP probably expected Remain to win. Most people did. But the answer afterwards wasn’t to ignore the majority in Northern Ireland who voted Remain.

Last week they simply ran out of road, and suddenly realised they could have Brexit or the Union, but might not be able to have both. The Ulster Unionists and independent unionist Sylvia Hermon clearly understood that all along.

If their bottom line is defending the constitutional status quo, the DUP should have similarly realised from the start that the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland needs a harmonious Northern Ireland to work, and Brexit threatened that.

Right now, the union also urgently needs a stable Great Britain, which is why, even now, the DUP should not be so eager to throw away the friendship they’ve built up with Boris Johnson. They could have started to rebuild the relationship on Saturday by not voting for the Letwin amendment, which was nothing but a wrecking tactic by sore losers.

Instead they’re apparently working on the basis that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.

Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday, Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer even urged the DUP to begin talks on backing a second referendum.

South Belfast’s Emma Little-Pengelly quickly poured cold water on that suggestion on BBC Northern Ireland’s Sunday Politics; but if the DUP is ruling out another referendum, that just leaves the option of the whole of the UK staying in the customs union, which has already been emphatically rejected by Parliament, and the DUP may not be strong enough any more to change the parliamentary arithmetic.

Despite the DUP rebellion on Saturday, Boris still got 306 MPs on his side, more than Theresa May ever had for any Brexit deal, and he only needs to turn a small number of others to get across the line. If the DUP now goes all out to wreck his new withdrawal agreement, they might fail, and either way will have lost many friends in the Tory party, one of the few places they have any.

The DUP would be better off working with the Prime Minister to ensure their concerns are addressed in negotiations on the final shape of a trade deal which will follow immediately once Britain is out of the EU.

Nothing is going to happen during the transition period. If a comprehensive free trade deal is done by the end of 2020, then the checks being envisaged in the Irish Sea need never come into being at all. Democratic Unionists seem to be insisting on assurances up front that there will never be such checks, despite strongly criticising the Dublin government for demanding an equivalent guarantee in the backstop.

Unionists cannot have it both ways either.

Whatever happens next, Boris is still best placed to safeguard the Union. Jeremy Corbyn is allergic to unionism, and a Labour government’s instinct would be to weaken Northern Ireland’s constitutional status still further.

The DUP is not being asked to give up the fight, simply to have it once the UK is out of the EU.

Instead they’re still taking refuge behind the Belfast Agreement, despite Arlene Foster saying earlier this month that it was not “sacrosanct” and that “things evolve, even in the EU context”. Kettle, meet pot.

The real risk to the Union at the moment is not the half in/half out measures being proposed. Those are manageable, as the DUP ought to know better than anyone, having poured justified scorn on the cynical scaremongering which was stoked around checks on the land border. In practice, it is in everyone’s economic and political interests, including nationalists, for any “border” in the Irish Sea to be as invisible as possible.

The biggest danger to the union lies elsewhere. As another week of drama begins in the House of Commons, the DUP needs to reflect on whether a few technical regulations that may never come into play anyway are more of a risk to their long'term aims than alienating everyone outside Northern Ireland who cherishes the Union, but who desperately wants out of the EU. Don’t make them choose. You won’t like the answer.

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