Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: The DUP should take nothing for granted, a lot of unionists, perhaps even the majority, feel pretty let down right now

With her party's annual conference beckoning next weekend, expect Arlene Foster to opt for a 'circle the wagons' strategy, writes Alex Kane

Boris Johnson and Arlene Foster
Boris Johnson and Arlene Foster
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

I’ve mentioned a number of times in the last few months that Boris Johnson would probably present the DUP with a fait accompli. And now he has — albeit one that seems immeasurably worse than Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement.

He made the brutal, cut-’em-loose decision that getting EU signatures on a deal was more important than getting Foster and Dodds onboard.

Even more worrying for the party is that Johnson (with Rees-Mogg’s help, I presume) has also persuaded some more European Reform Group (ERG) members to shift their votes behind him. That will have hurt the DUP, because they had put so much faith in him.

Yes, he had already gone back on a promise he made to them at their annual conference last year and voted for the Withdrawal Agreement, but they still reckoned that he would step up and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them.

Yet, having persuaded the party to soften their stance on regulatory alignment last week (earning Arlene the nickname “two borders Foster” for her shift in policy), he just threw them under the bus this week. That’s what Boris does. And that’s what some of us kept saying he would do.

The DUP’s annual conference is next Saturday. It’s going to be a very difficult one. If the deal gets through Parliament on Saturday (and I think that’s unlikely at this point), Foster has to explain how the DUP plans to make the best of a bad job and sell it.

Even if it doesn’t go through, she still has to explain why first May and now Johnson has “shafted” the party that kept their Government in office for almost 30 months.

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She will also have to explain why the Assembly is likely to remain in the doldrums for some time to come — unless she agrees to an Irish Language Act — and why (depending what happens on Monday, of course) the law on same-sex-marriage and abortion may be changing without any local input to the debate.

And, on top of that, she will also have to pump some confidence into a party which could be facing an election in a few weeks and enduring some very uncomfortable doorstep conversations about why everything seems to have gone so wrong.

There will also be some concern about what seems to be a possible shift of the UUP’s position on Brexit. Steve Aiken, who seems likely to be the next leader, has indicated that the party would move towards Remain under his watch. That may be a sensible step, but it’s also a bold one.

There is a belief that Danny Kennedy lost the Euro seat — along with a swathe of former voters switching to Alliance — because the party’s line on Brexit was so vague.

So, making the party’s policy more Remain-friendly could win back some votes and attract some small-“u” unionists, who tend not to vote. But if that is his strategy, then it will certainly make electoral pacts more difficult to construct, which could also be a problem for the DUP in places like North and South Belfast.

The DUP’s backroom team of number-crunchers, policy wonks and spin-doctors will have a week of long days and sleepless nights.

They know damage has been done to the party’s reputation for competence and skill in negotiations and, even though a likely defeat for Johnson’s deal on Saturday will buy them some time, they also know that a very difficult time lies ahead.

One thing is certain: they know Johnson can’t be trusted. They know, too, that they have to have an answer to the criticisms that they were too trusting of him in the first place and then outplayed by a team playing for much higher stakes than them.

At this point, the electoral odds remain in their favour, but that isn’t all that reassuring in these volatile times.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

I suspect they will opt for the “all of unionism has been betrayed” strategy, arguing that unionists must stand together (circle the wagons, in other words) and send a clear message that Northern Ireland is not going to be pushed out.

But there is still one enormous problem: the evidence of the last 30 months suggests that the DUP cannot deliver its preferred option on Brexit — and may never be able to.

So, voters — including many of their own natural base — may want clear answers before dropping their ballots into the box.

The DUP should take nothing for granted. A lot of unionists, maybe a majority, feel let down right now.

And here’s something else worth considering. Bearing in mind that both May and Johnson concluded that the interests of the DUP — and Northern Ireland unionists in general — were less of a priority than the interests of the EU generally (and the Irish government, in particular), what does that say about Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom?

Or, putting that another way, why do Johnson and both May and Thatcher before him (actually, you can include Heath, Major and Blair in that list, too) think that it is okay to shift the constitutional parameters when it comes to policy for Northern Ireland?

And why weren’t most unionists surprised when they heard that Johnson had, to all intents and purposes, allowed the DUP to swing in the wind?

Which leads to another question: why did the DUP think that things would be different this time?

I accept that a full-blown Confidence and Supply arrangement was on a much grander scale than the nod-and-a-wink relationship which Jim Molyneaux had with Major at the time of the Maastricht Treaty and much more significant than the Conservative/UUP (UCUNF) electoral pact a few years ago.

But even the nature of the relationship and the voting importance of it to the Conservatives didn’t stop the DUP being trussed up and tossed aside.

Which is more or less the same fate that befell the UUP in 1972 after a 50-year parliamentary arrangement in which their MPs took the Conservative whip and held senior office within the party.

Is it because “Ulster unionism” is regarded as just a poor-cousin offshoot of the pan-UK unionism of the Conservative Party? Is it because Northern Ireland is sometimes regarded as requiring too much effort for too little reward?

Whatever the answers to those questions and quite a few others may be, the fact remains that the “regional” unionists in Northern Ireland don’t appear to be regarded in quite the same light as unionists in the other parts of the UK.

Worryingly, there seems little evidence of the DUP having shifted the dynamics since June 2017.

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