Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Arlene Foster's Brussels trip a case of playing to her home audience

Arlene Foster, Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson leaving the European Commission yesterday following a meeting with Michel Barnier to discuss Brexit
Arlene Foster, Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson leaving the European Commission yesterday following a meeting with Michel Barnier to discuss Brexit
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Say what you like about the DUP but they aren't fools. Arlene Foster travelled to Brussels on Thursday to meet EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and tell him that his approach to the Withdrawal Agreement is fatally flawed.

The message was that he has barely paid lip service to unionist opposition to the backstop and must now start listening.

Mrs Foster knows there's not a snowball's chance in hell of Mr Barnier changing his stance, and why should he?

In the battle of Brexit, the EU is now far ahead of Team GB. It hasn't the slightest intention of ditching a winning strategy to appease the DUP. Mrs Foster's party might be top dog in Northern Ireland, and it might currently hold the balance of power in Westminster, but in the grand scheme of things in Europe, it's a bit player.

There is no motivation for the EU to bin the backstop. It has little reason to care whether or not Theresa May's deal secures a parliamentary majority. Every day that passes without the UK leaving the EU increases the chances of Brexit never happening.

So why did Mrs Foster waste her time on what she knew would be a fruitless visit?

This was one for the optics for the home audience. The DUP leader needed to be seen to be in Brussels, making her case, since the government has pushed her party aside in favour of trying to work out a way forward with Labour. Mrs Foster warned that if the EU won't reopen the Withdrawal Agreement and change the backstop, then we are moving "inexorably towards a no-deal scenario".

That's a completely hollow threat. Continuing Brexit stalemate and further extensions, a general election and even a second referendum can't be ruled out, but no-deal is currently not a runner in any shape or form.

And the DUP is privately quite content with that because it wouldn't want to shoulder the responsibility for the potential impact that no-deal might have on the Northern Ireland economy.

The biggest danger for the DUP remains Mrs May's Withdrawal Agreement scraping through the House of Commons.

As it has said and shown time and time again, the union that matters above and beyond any other for the party is the one between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Of the DUP's 10 MPs, only Sammy Wilson - and possibly Ian Paisley - are truly hardcore ideological Brexiteers. The rest won't lose a wink of sleep if the UK stays in the EU ad infinitum.

The strength of pro-Remain feeling in the unionist community has been over-stated by the media. Business and farming leaders do not necessarily reflect the views of those lower down the ranks.

Anecdotal evidence from council election canvassers across all the unionist parties suggests that Brexit is the major issue on the doorsteps and that the pro-Leave sentiment among the unionist base is actually strengthening as the Westminster fiasco continues.

That is why the DUP will keep loudly trumpeting its commitment to a proper Brexit despite the fact that it can live perfectly well with the softest of soft Brexits or no Brexit at all. Moderating its public position would be a vote-loser in the local government and EU elections here.

In Parliament, the party must be careful not to be seen to over-play its hand in public.

Sammy Wilson can fire from the hip with warnings about the future of the confidence and supply agreement, but the DUP is highly unlikely to do anything to bring in a Corbyn government - and senior Tories know it.

With power-sharing still suspended, the party would be loath to cut its own throat at Westminster.

It would like rid of Mrs May as Tory leader but, given his recent Withdrawal Agreement u-turn, it knows Boris Johnson is no knight in shining armour for unionists.

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