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Ed Curran: Who speaks for Northern Ireland on Brexit - Business bosses or the DUP?



Tonight the ears of Northern Ireland should be burning as Prime Minister Theresa May hosts a special reception in Downing Street for the voices of local industry, commerce and agriculture.

The battle for the hearts and minds of us all in the great Brexit crisis is now waging in every corner of the UK - none more so than here, where the 10 MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party appear determined to face down the views of those to whom Mrs May will listen this evening.

Never before have so many in the local business community been so willing to put their heads above the parapet of politics and challenge their elected representatives as has happened in the past week.


The very future of a British Prime Minister, of the Conservative Government, of the UK's withdrawal from the European Union, depends on Northern Ireland. By a quirk of electoral arithmetic, the DUP finds itself uniquely positioned in a make or break pivotal role.

The party says it will not be moved irrespective of the supportive message those gathered in Downing Street tonight will offer to Theresa May. The stage is therefore set for an extraordinary conflict of political and economic interests. Mrs May may well wonder who is truly reflecting opinion in this corner of her increasingly disunited kingdom - the politicians or the business leaders?

To answer that question, it is worth returning to the only accurate gauge we have of Brexit views: the results of the 2016 referendum in the 18 Northern Ireland constituencies.

Who voted for and against leaving the EU and how do those votes justify or otherwise the trenchant attitude adopted by the DUP?

When the DUP is reminded that 56% of Northern Ireland voters in the referendum were Remainers, the party chooses conveniently to ignore the local result and claims instead that it reflects the overall 52% national majority for leaving the EU.

However, can that argument be sustained in the current climate when the issue of the border and Northern Ireland's future is at stake? Can the 10 DUP members of Westminster have an agenda which takes little or no account of the feelings of the majority in NI who did not want to leave the EU in the first place?

Only seven of the 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland supported the DUP's Brexit stance in the 2016 referendum. Three out of the four Belfast constituencies voted to Remain in the EU. Nigel Dodds, the leading spokesman of the DUP at Westminster, represents an area in north Belfast where the referendum vote was split virtually 50/50 with a narrow victory for the Remainers.

When it comes to her views on the EU, the south Belfast MP Emma Little-Pengelly appears to be the most unrepresentative of all - almost 70% of voters in her constituency voted to Remain. Gregory Campbell's diehard Brexit stance was also rejected by 52% of voters in East Londonderry. In South Antrim, where Paul Girvan is MP, the Leave vote had a majority of only 557 or 0.6% in a overall turnout of 43,553.

In east Belfast, regarded by many as a bastion of the DUP, 48.6% opposed the party's Leave position - hardly a vote of confidence in the views now being expressed by Gavin Robinson, the sitting MP. DUP leader Arlene Foster in Fermanagh and South Tyrone had only 41% of referendum voters along the border supporting her Leave views.

That said, the DUP and indeed people on both sides of the referendum result may argue that 2016 is not 2018. It is possible that the constitutional warnings of the DUP are raising new fears and swaying unionist voters, yet so too could the economic arguments that Northern Ireland can have the best of all worlds under Theresa May's withdrawal deal, as business leaders are suggesting.

It is easy to overlook the fact that Ulster's two main commercial hubs, Belfast and Londonderry, rejected the DUP's Brexit stance in the 2016 referendum by a substantial majority.

Sinn Fein's abstentionism means that the 440,000 people who rejected the DUP's Leave position and voted to Remain in the EU are totally disenfranchised on arguably the most important political issue in 20 years since the Good Friday agreement referendum.

In the land where 'one man, one vote' was so bitterly contested, nationalists and unionists alike who were Remainers have no say at all at Westminster other than the isolated independent voice of North Down's Sylvia Hermon, who continues bravely to offer an alternative view to the DUP's.

Of the 10 DUP MPs, only five can claim with any confidence that they reflect majority opinion in their constituencies: Ian Paisley (62% North Antrim), Jim Shannon (55% Strangford), Sammy Wilson (55% East Antrim), Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (53% Lagan Valley) and David Simpson (52% Upper Bann).

Around 380,000 people voted unionist of one shade or other in the 2017 general election, compared to 350,000 in the 2016 referendum who supported the Leave campaign to exit the EU.

The difference might suggest that as many as 30,000 unionist voters do not share the Brexit view of the two main unionist parties.

In 2016, Arlene Foster expressed her delight at the referendum result despite the fact that in Northern Ireland so many people had taken an opposite view to that of her party. "We are now entering a new era of an even stronger UK," she said with a confidence which has not been borne out by subsequent events. "I am proud of the fact that this decision was taken by the people and I will be working for the best possible exit negotiation."

As First Minister, along with the late Martin McGuinness, she put her signature to a letter to Theresa May which set out their views on Brexit and which is particularly illuminating given the DUP's tough stance.

For example, Foster and McGuinness wrote: "We need to retain as far as possible the ease with which we currently trade with EU member states and also importantly retain access to labour ... EU funds have been hugely important to our economy and the peace process. Since 1994, for example, we have benefited to the tune of €13bn and in 2014-2020 we would expect to draw down €3.5bn."

The voting statistics of 2016 indicate that Northern Ireland was deeply divided then and it almost certainly remains so now. A total of 440,707 referendum voters in Northern Ireland who wanted to Remain in the EU have found themselves with virtually no voice at Westminster on this issue.

This weekend the DUP assembles for its annual party conference and finds itself holding the future of the Prime Minister and her government in its hands. No unionist party has wielded such potential power since the heady days of Home Rule a century ago.

The big question is, how will the DUP use that power? To what extent will the party's MPs recognise rather than ignore the concerns of the business and farming people assembled in Downing Street tonight?

And above all, will the DUP belatedly accept that when it comes to Northern Ireland's future in Europe, a majority of people are not on the same wavelength as the party's 10 MPs at this critical moment in the UK's and Europe's history?

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