Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Lesson in realpolitik for DUP as Johnson strikes unlikely deal

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Editor's Viewpoint

Boris Johnson has pulled off one of the great political coups of recent times, getting what everyone thought was impossible: a revised Brexit deal. The controversial backstop is mentioned no more, but is the new deal better or worse for Northern Ireland, never mind the rest of the UK?

Given that everyone wanted to avoid a no-deal Brexit, the reaction to the new deal, even in Northern Ireland, has been somewhat underwhelming, particularly from business, and downright hostile from the DUP.

The agri-food sector, which was particularly vulnerable, had already gained concessions which meant the soft border trade with the Republic could continue under the new arrangements, but there are concerns about the cost of other business between Britain and the province which would have to undergo checks, adding a layer of expensive bureaucracy and tariffs.

The DUP is concerned about financial elements of the new deal, but more deeply worried about the constitutional implications.

The party has been pilloried because of its pro-Brexit stance that chimed badly with the majority Remain sentiment here. But to its credit, even if it meant losing points to political opponents, it did move on the concerns of the agri-food industry, and its current objections to the new deal are shared by a significant number in the business community.

What has really angered the party is the provision for a Stormont Assembly to back the new deal as regards Northern Ireland by a simple majority vote.

Senior party figures must now wonder if they make a serious error in demanding such an oversight role for Stormont. They may have felt that - as is the case with most serious votes in the Assembly - there would have to be a cross-community majority in any vote on the new arrangements, effectively handing them a veto.

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But instead they have a deal which, as the Assembly is currently configured, would give the upper hand to Sinn Fein and the pro-Remain parties. Talk about being hoist with their own petard.

So what happens next? Johnson needs to perform another escape act that would make Houdini seem like a bungling amateur. Can he get a deal - which one economic commentator in Northern Ireland described as worse than that of Theresa May as far as the province is concerned - through Westminster tomorrow?

The arithmetic seemingly is not in his favour with the DUP set stonily against his deal. If the party has the ear of other staunchly pro-Union Tories, Johnson could flounder. However, the new in-phrase with Brexit is "difficult but possible", and it would be foolish to totally rule out any result in the Commons tomorrow.

What seems more certain is that a general election cannot be far off. Buoyed by getting a deal, Johnson doubtless sees this as an opportunity to gain an electoral majority, if only because Labour is in disarray.

The position of this newspaper, like that of everyone else with the interests of the province at heart, remains unchanged in that it wants Brexit to conclude with the best possible deal for Northern Ireland. The DUP obviously does not think the revised deal fits the bill and the Prime Minister may have underestimated the party's ability and willingness to negotiate right to the final minute. That is in the DNA of Northern Ireland politics, and there is still a long and difficult way to go before Brexit is finally signed off and consigned to history.

Belfast Telegraph


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