Belfast Telegraph

Ed Curran: Will DUP say 'No' to another British Prime Minister over Brexit?

With the UK and EU now softening their stances, how flexible will the DUP be over new deal, asks Ed Curran

Boris Johnson and Arlene Foster
Boris Johnson and Arlene Foster

By Ed Curran

As the clock ticks towards make-or-break time on Europe, so much now hinges on Anglo-Irish relations. Three years on, after all the failed attempts at finding a Brexit solution, could we really be on the cusp of agreement, against all the odds, in spite of the political and media prophets of doom?

The vibes are positive even if the pathway to any deal is still strewn with what until now seemed to be insurmountable obstacles.

There have been many tests for unionism in Northern Ireland and nationalism on this island over the past 50 years but the response of both over the coming days to the Brexit challenge will surely define all our futures as never before.

Until last week, this island faced the calamity of a no-deal Brexit. Now, where there was political despair, hope has emerged at the very 11th hour. The extraordinary private meeting between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar has opened the door to a deal, though many imponderables remain, not least the reaction of the Democratic Unionist party and other parties on this island, north and south.

Not before time, Johnson and Varadkar were awakened to the obvious fact that a deal on Brexit centres on good Anglo-Irish relations.

No matter what happens at the European Union's summit this week, the UK and Ireland must continue to build on any meeting of minds between them. The pity is that it has taken so long for the penny to drop in London, Dublin and Brussels.

Had Dublin not gone one way and London another over the contentious backstop in the past three years, Brexit might not have descended into such a debacle. To dig in their heels on the backstop must stay, backstop must go divide, was to beg a no-deal ending which no one can afford.

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Dublin chose to go one way, throwing all its eggs in a pan-European Brussels basket, overplaying its hand in the eyes of some observers, despite being so inter-dependent on the UK for its trade and economic wellbeing.

The Brexit battles at Westminster have shown that many British politicians, in all parties, fail to understand the complexities of life on this island. The arguments between leavers and remainers in English constituencies have dominated the UK's national media agenda.

Finding a solution to the Irish border question was not a vote-catcher for Tory and Labour MPs, nor was it given the inquiring import it deserved by the influential media, the national London-based papers and broadcasters.

Downing St under Theresa May must shoulder responsibility. It is only now, when the spectre of a no-deal Brexit concentrates minds everywhere, not least in Dublin, that any real dialogue has begun across the Irish Sea.

Three years of arms-length diplomacy between London and Dublin has now given way at the last possible minute to proper and respectful engagement and the benefits are obvious in the intense negotiations over Northern Ireland.

Boris Johnson seems to be keeping the DUP more in the loop, as evidenced by the comings and goings of the party's leaders, Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds, to Downing St. It also appears in contrast to when Theresa May was about to sign off her withdrawal agreement in Brussels in December 2017 and a last-minute telephone call from Arlene Foster was needed to halt the then Prime Minister's intent on the Irish backstop.

The wording of the Good Friday agreement (GFA) will be central to any Brexit deal, especially in relation to any customs or regulatory arrangements which might treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK.

The GFA speaks of the 'status' of Northern Ireland and asserts that "the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, that NI's status as part of the UK reflects and relies upon that wish; and that it would be wrong to make any change in the status of NI save with the consent of a majority of its people".

If Northern Ireland is to have separate customs and regulatory rules, how significantly will that alter our 'status' as part of the UK? And how can the people of NI have a say, as required under the GFA, in any change?

Suggestions to date that the NI Assembly could adjudicate are not acceptable in Brussels or Dublin. The rules of the Assembly offer a built-in veto to the major unionist and nationalist parties.

Approval for change requires a majority of NI people, which could be expressed in the form of a special referendum rather than a divisive Assembly vote at Stormont. It remains to be seen how the negotiators this week can find an answer to this issue which might satisfy not only London and Dublin but the political parties here.

The Brexit talks are coming down to the wire, with Northern Ireland at the very heart of negotiations. Speculation centres on a fudged future for Northern Ireland, half in and half out of the UK and the EU on any new customs and regulatory arrangements.

The political parties here must show flexibility, according to the Secretary of State, Julian Smith. All eyes are now on the DUP's 10 Westminster MPs. How flexible is the DUP likely to be at this pivotal moment in the UK's history?

The complexity of any emerging deal is a far cry from the simplistic slogans of the DUP's original referendum campaign with its gung-ho unquestioning enthusiasm about leaving the EU.

According to a leading figure in the party at that time, there was very little debate or attention paid to leaving the EU. It was simply a case of leaving and exhorting the people in the referendum to follow the party's line.

We know now and so does the DUP that Brexit has not proved so simple and the degree of flexibility asked of the party now will certainly test its unionist principles.

Many unionists, not least farmers and business owners, are worried. Brexit has increased political tension and division between unionists and nationalists. And it has led to a majority of voters in Northern Ireland refusing to toe the DUP line.

With 54% voting to remain, the party faces a challenging general election to retain all its 10 seats. The extent to which the DUP will be required to buy into Boris Johnson's Brexit proposals could be difficult to sell to the party faithful.

All the signs are that the negotiators are prepared to fudge the issue of whether NI is inside or outside a UK customs union. Boris Johnson is also under pressure to withdraw his original proposal that Stormont and presumably the DUP would have a right to veto arrangements with Europe. Instead, a local plebiscite or referendum might bypass any Stormont decision-making. To what extent, if any, would that be acceptable to the DUP?

For the moment, the DUP watches and waits like the rest of us for the actual detail of any deal to be revealed more clearly.

Only when that happens will we know where the party really stands and the extent to which its leadership is at one with Boris Johnson's proposals or, prepared as it was with Theresa May, to say No.

Ed Curran is a former editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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