Editor's Viewpoint: Caught between preserving Union and avoiding a no-deal catastrophe, unionists find themselves in difficult position
As the political pressure mounts in the run-up to the crucial Brussels summit tomorrow, two of the major Tory ministers — Philip Hammond and Liam Fox — have visited Northern Ireland, while DUP leader Arlene Foster makes arguably the most important political speech of her career at the party conference in Belfast, which will be attended by Tory Brixiteer-in-chief Boris Johnston.
These are heady times indeed for all politicians, and particularly for those in Northern Ireland, though there has never been a more important time for cool heads to prevail than right now.
It is worth pointing out that Mrs Foster will speak in conciliatory terms about Mrs May. She will be warm about recognising the Prime Minister’s hard work and determination for a favourable conclusion to the Brexit negotiations.
At the same time, there is no doubt that Mrs Foster is genuine when she says she wants to see an outcome that will do no harm to the Union.
Clearly the DUP is not changing its position in opposing the current — and only — deal on offer from the EU.
The reality is, therefore, that if we are to secure a better deal, the only option is to look beyond the current draft withdrawal agreement and use the time left to encourage everyone to work for a better outcome.
However, the DUP finds itself in a very difficult position, and Mrs Foster acknowledges the importance of avoiding a calamitous ‘no-deal’.
Nevertheless, for both the DUP and the UUP, the Union is something that is not negotiable, and is fundamental to their political identity. Basically, neither party can negotiate away the Union without damaging the essence of unionism itself. Brexit has now thrown all these complex issues into stark relief.
Without doubt, the insightful comments of former DUP leader Peter Robinson in a speech he gave this week will be a talking point among delegates at the Belfast conference today.
He said that ‘confidence and supply’ agreements between political parties have a shelf life, the inference surely being that it is important for people not to overplay their hand.
These are wise words indeed at a time when the political stakes for Northern Ireland have never been higher.
The hand of history, once referred to by Tony Blair, is still hanging over all of us here.