Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: DUP's Brexit stance lands it in choppy waters as rivals expose vulnerability over backing Johnson

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster
Julian Smith
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The DUP appears increasingly vulnerable on Brexit. Its support for Boris Johnson's proposals leaves it exposed within unionism.

The party is well accustomed to doing battle with those who passionately want the UK to stay in the EU.

It can swiftly sweep aside the arguments of Sinn Fein and what it brands the 'Remoaners' in Alliance and the SDLP. But now it's under attack on another front.

The Ulster Unionists and the TUV have excoriated Arlene Foster's party for backing the Prime Minister's blueprint.

The DUP's U-turn has given the UUP a new lease of life.

Lord Empey, Steve Aiken, and Doug Beattie have all lined up to land blows in recent days. But it's Jim Allister's denunciation of the deal which will cause the Duppers the most unease. During May's EU election campaign, party figures regularly repeated how you "couldn't put a cigarette paper" between the TUV leader and their own Diane Dodds on Brexit.

It gave them great comfort and confidence.

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Mr Allister - with well-honed instincts for sniffing out betrayal and never shy about pointing the finger of blame - was basically endorsing them on Brexit.

But now the TUV leader is accusing the DUP of surrender over a border in the Irish Sea.

"To think that the DUP has signed up to such is staggering," he said yesterday. "Not just does it breach their blood red line, but it sets us up for economic unity with the Republic and increasing divergence from Great Britain. The direction of travel is clear and it certainly does not involve the UK leaving the EU as one nation, rather our part is left behind in a foreign single market."

This puts the DUP in very dangerous territory. Mr Allister is clearly a minority taste. But many unionists who don't vote for him, or like his political style, do listen to him and respect his judgment on constitutional issues.

The DUP's main selling point of the Johnson proposals last Wednesday was that the Stormont consent mechanism gave the party a de fact veto on Northern Ireland's future trading arrangements.

Except the Prime Minister was vague on detail when questioned about that in the House of Commons the following day. And on Friday, Secretary of State Julian Smith certainly appeared not to be travelling in the same direction as the DUP when he said: "I am not going to go into the detail of the negotiation with the EU but the Good Friday Agreement is very clear on consent - it means one party not dominating."

Remove the veto - and that could be done by a post-election Tory government not dependent on 10 Northern Ireland MPs - and this isn't a good deal at all for the DUP.

Sammy Wilson yesterday effectively admitted there were flaws when he said the blueprint "may not be perfect but it's a fair deal".

The DUP's frustration is in some ways understandable.

There have been endless calls for it to compromise yet when it does so it's castigated.

The party sees its unionist rivals as hurlers on the ditch, sniping from the sidelines without ever having to dirty their own hands with deal-making.

The TUV and UUP won't pay the political price if a no-deal Brexit brings disaster to Northern Ireland. It is the DUP which will be in the firing line.

But those parties will retort that the DUP can't have it both ways. It has milked every drop of publicity out of its unprecedented influence at Westminster over the past two years.

Now the critics are having their say. Being centre-stage means taking the brickbats, and not just the bouquets.

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