Belfast Telegraph

Editor's viewpoint: DUP unlikely to be swayed by May's charm offensive

Theresa May
Theresa May

It is an indication of the pivotal position that Northern Ireland holds in the Brexit debate that Prime Minister Theresa May has taken the time to extend her charm offensive to this side of the Irish Sea.

Her 900-plus word article published exclusively in this newspaper today can be viewed as an attempt to convince unionists that the draft deal she has struck with the EU is as good as it gets and that it gives Northern Ireland business positive advantages through unfettered access to its main marketplaces in Britain, the Republic and other countries of the EU.

Mrs May is well aware that she is unlikely to change the minds of the DUP who, having backed themselves into a corner on the issue and raised fears over the integrity of the Union, can hardly do an about-face.

She is also aware that the ordinary unionist on the street, having long memories of what they would call past Tory treachery over the proroguing of Stormont and signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement which gave Dublin a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland, also needs reassurance that whatever the economic outcome, the Union remains safe.

The Prime Minister says the consent principle contained in the Belfast Agreement guarantees Northern Ireland's constitutional status as part of the UK, but a large thrust of her argument is of the economic benefits of the draft deal.

She is keen to name check the business organisations that have come out in favour of the deal - while admitting it is imperfect but infinitely preferable to a No Deal - and as our business pages today reveal, those who previously trumpeted support for Brexit have suddenly gone quiet.

Astonishingly, one former strong advocate of Brexit, wine merchant James Nicholson, now brands local political leaders as economic terrorists for their handling of the debate. Strong words, which have seldom been uttered by any leading business figure here before. If nothing else, that shows the passions that have been aroused by the vote to leave the EU.

Mrs May also cites the need for continued security co-operation between Northern Ireland and its EU counterparts, assures people that the common travel area between the Republic and the UK will continue, and assures politicians that when taking back control of laws, Westminster, where appropriate, will devolve them to the devolved administrations. This is another reason for getting the Assembly and Executive back and having a functioning administration here, but that is unlikely to happen soon.

The Prime Minister gives three assurances of why there is no need to fear the backstop to the EU divorce bill: the implementation period can be extended instead of entering the backstop; regulations across the UK will be kept consistent, ensuring no divergence between Britain and Northern Ireland and, finally, this is only a temporary measure which can be terminated.

So, will her charm offensive work? She is preaching to the converted as far as the business community is concerned - although it cannot be taken as read that everyone in the organisations which have backed the draft deal is in tune with their leaderships. They can begin to plan for the future.

Politicians are a different matter. Their expressed concern is of any threat to the Union. All else is of secondary importance to unionists.

Having raised fears, will they be reassured that there is no threat from this draft deal? There is probably more chance of Sinn Fein entering the Commons.

Belfast Telegraph


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