Suzanne Breen: DUP relishing being centre stage but party insists Union is priority
Rarely a day goes by without the DUP being centre stage in the Brexit debate. Its 10 MPs have surely secured power and publicity beyond their wildest dreams.
They evidently relish it but, with Prime Minister Theresa May attempting to secure a third meaningful vote on her Withdrawal Agreement, the rumour mill is in full swing and the DUP seems uncomfortable with what's being said.
The party has been offered a string of incentives to back Mrs May's deal, according to media reports.
Among the concessions put on the table by the Government is a proposal to scrap air passenger duty for fights from local airports and so make Belfast more competitive with Dublin, according to one story yesterday.
Extra money for Northern Ireland in some shape or form generally tops the list of alleged inducements being dangled before DUP eyes. But the party is adamant this is not so.
Sources say the DUP will drive a hard bargain on these matters in negotiations to reach a new confidence and supply deal with the Government - the current one expires in June. But the Brexit talks are purely about Brexit and protecting the "constitutional integrity" of Northern Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. Nothing else features on the agenda, they insist.
"The suggestion that we would sell out the Union for money is highly offensive," a senior DUP source said last night.
"Just think of Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster and what they have both personally been through.
"Nigel suffered an attempt on his life as he visited his son in hospital. Arlene survived a bomb exploding under her school bus and her father was the target of an IRA murder attempt.
"The discussions with the Government are not about cash. They are about delivering Brexit for the whole of the UK and ensuring Northern Ireland's place in the UK is safeguarded as we leave the EU."
The DUP's main day-to-day negotiators have been Nigel Dodds, Emma Little Pengelly and Jeffrey Donaldson. Arlene Foster's absence from Westminster yesterday was a sure sign that a deal wasn't close as the DUP leader is likely to join the talks only if agreement appears imminent.
The Government negotiators are Chancellor Philip Hammond, Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Mrs May's deputy David Lidington, and Tory chief whip Julian Smith.
DUP sources say there is "no chance" of a Brexit deal this week. Mr Dodds yesterday said that with Speaker John Bercow having "thrown a spanner in the works", the Government is now more intensely focused on securing a third vote than on talks with the party. While describing the discussions as constructive, he said there were "still big gaps" between the two sides.
With Mrs May asking Brussels for a two-month technical extension of Article 50, the DUP acknowledges an immediate no deal Brexit is effectively off the table. But the party is strongly against postponing Brexit beyond June, and Mr Dodds said it would be a "crazy situation" if the UK ended up having to participate in another EU election.
TUV leader Jim Allister is usually the DUP's most vocal critic but he seems content with how it has handled Brexit so far.
Last night, he urged Mrs Foster's party to stand firm and warned there was no room for "fudge or slippage" on a backstop which he said threatened the Union. "If Ulster MPs blinked on this issue, then history would rightly judge them as having failed when it matter most to stand firm," he added.
Lord Bew, the historian and former adviser to UUP leader David Trimble, reckons it's "50-50" whether the DUP backs Mrs May's Brexit deal. He believes if the DUP "is onside", around 10-15 Labour MPs will follow who otherwise would think it pointless rebelling against their own party whips.
"The DUP has sway with the European Research Group, although there's a small ERG hardcore who will still refuse to support the Withdrawal Agreement. I think it's those Labour MPs who will be most influenced by the DUP's decision," he said.