Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Boris Johnson could be tempted by Brexit backstop only for Northern Ireland

Nigel Farage has indicated that losing Northern Ireland would be a price worth paying for Brexit
Nigel Farage has indicated that losing Northern Ireland would be a price worth paying for Brexit
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

Actually, the most interesting part of the LucidTalk poll is the indication that only 34% of DUP supporters believe that the government has done fairly well/very well in negotiating Brexit; with 60% believing they have done fairly badly/very badly.

That's a huge chunk of dissatisfaction from the voters for the party which has propped up the Conservatives since June 2017 and is presently rewriting an updated confidence and supply arrangement.

It is also a level of dissatisfaction which will engender caution with the DUP's negotiators over the next few weeks.

Almost 60% support for a NI-specific backstop as part of a Brexit deal isn't a big surprise.

The pro-Remain vote in 2016 was almost 56% and growing concerns since then about the impact of a no-deal or hard Brexit has shifted support towards what some would regard as the softest possible outcome.

It has huge support from nationalists, probably because they believe that anything which keeps Northern Ireland linked more closely to the EU rather than the UK would have long term benefits in the event of a border poll.

That said, almost 27% of those identifying themselves as 'British only' - many from within the UUP fold - also support the NI-specific backstop; although it isn't immediately clear if that is because they believe it helps promote the UK link in the event of a border poll, or because, if push comes to shove, they would prioritise the EU rather than the UK union.

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Anyway, it's a figure which could be significant if there were a border poll.

Boris Johnson's advisers and analysts will be poring over these stats.

He doesn't want to be the Prime Minister who presides over the implosion of the UK; but nor does he want to be the Conservative leader who sees his party out-polled by the Brexit Party in a general election because he had been seen to opt for a softer deal just to keep Northern Ireland.

Nigel Farage has indicated that losing Northern Ireland would be a price worth paying for Brexit - although he also says he doesn't expect it to come to that; while a majority of Conservative members has also indicated that it's a price worth paying.

What is clear is that a NI-specific backstop could lead to Northern Ireland being treated significantly differently to the rest of the UK.

That would raise enormous problems for unionism generally and the DUP in particular. The party doesn't want a referendum on the issue: partly because there is no guarantee of winning it and also because it doesn't want what would likely be turned into a dry run for a border poll.

As it stands, the parliamentary arithmetic is not as favourable to the DUP as it was two years ago, meaning it has less clout with Johnson than it once had with May - a clout which yielded no favours.

In other words, it doesn't have as many levers of control as it really needs at this point.

Personally, I don't see Johnson opting for a Northern Ireland referendum and I don't think he has the time, anyway. But he could still be tempted by the backstop option.

He supported it in January and encouraged other ERG members to follow suit.

He will be receiving regular briefings from PSNI, military and intelligence sources about political stability in Northern Ireland in the event of a no-deal, hard Brexit outcome and could yet be persuaded of the merits of a backstop of some sort.

If nothing else it buys him a little more time.

Conservatives don't have any votes in Northern Ireland - less than half a per cent - and won't have any particular interest in the DUP if the next election, months away, changes the arithmetic again.

The DUP wants a soft landing, although it will never admit it. It is aware of the potential damage to the union in the event of a no-deal; the very last thing it needs in the run-up to Northern Ireland's centenary in less than two years' time.

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