Belfast Telegraph

Eoghan Harris: An open letter to DUP... if the Union is much more precious to you than Brexit, you have to kill Brexit

But a campaign to stay in the customs union, time-limited to seven years, would win massive popular support in Britain and Northern Ireland, retain a soft border and deliver an acceptable EU exit, writes Eoghan Harris

DUP leader Arlene Foster with Jeffrey Donaldson and Emma Little Pengelly at the party conference last weekend in Belfast
DUP leader Arlene Foster with Jeffrey Donaldson and Emma Little Pengelly at the party conference last weekend in Belfast

By Eoghan Harris

As a long-time southern Irish supporter of Northern Ireland unionists (not a popular stance), may I suggest how you could cut the Gordian knot tied by Boris Johnson?

The Gordian knot is that you are in the terrible position of having to choose between betraying the Union, or alienating the people of the United Kingdom by delaying Brexit.

But there is one radical solution to your problem that would be popular in Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland: that solution is to promote a cross-party amendment calling for the UK as a whole to stay in the customs union.

Such an amendment, tabled by Kenneth Clarke, the Father of the House, in an indicative vote last April failed by only three votes.

In times of crisis boldness is always the best policy. Look how well it has served Johnson.

But first you must choose between Brexit and the Union: you can't have both.

Here a tried and tested writers' adage may help you: "Kill all your darlings."

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It means you have to sacrifice secondary things, for which you have a sentimental affection, to the big love that matters most. If the Union is more precious to you than Brexit, you have to kill Brexit.

The DUP can turn the tables on Johnson's cheerleaders in London and Dublin with a campaign to stay in the customs union with a time limit of seven years.

At one blow this would garner massive popular support in Britain and Northern Ireland, retain a soft border with the Irish Republic and deliver an acceptable Brexit.

Like all good strategies, it means swallowing some past shibboleths, such as your mistaken habit of trusting the Tories, and your strategic mistake in voting against May's proposal.

But admitting past mistakes and moving on to high moral ground would put the DUP in the driving seat and gain unionism the allies it desperately needs across the entire political spectrum.

This includes Labour (Corbyn will not long be leader) and the Lib Dems, with whom fences need to be mended for the future.

As a bonus, it would point up the common ground between the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic. Because Boris Johnson's deal is a bad deal for Ireland.

First, it trashes the hard-won principle of cross-party consent in Northern Ireland, leading to potential trouble down the road.

Secondly, although it preserves an all-Ireland economy, it removes the certainties in Theresa May's deal, because the implementation period ends in a few months in 2020.

Last Tuesday in the Dail Micheal Martin pointed out that Boris Johnson's deal was worse for Ireland than Theresa May's deal because it made for a harder Brexit. Ivan Yates made the same point on The Tonight Show to Fine Gael minister John Paul Phelan. Yates: "The type of Brexit that Boris wants is out of the customs union. It's a hard Brexit. It doesn't solve our east-west, or land-bridge, problems."

Ironically, Fine Gael's electoral fortunes are now so tightly wrapped up with a Boris Brexit that they find themselves cheering him on, alongside former Tory extremists in the ERG. Both John Major and Tony Blair have warned that Johnson's deal could upset the balance put in place by the Belfast Agreement. Surprisingly, the most powerful case against the deal was made by Jonathan Powell; surprisingly, because a few weeks ago he was beating up heavily on the DUP for its opposition to the Northern Ireland backstop.

But Powell is also an architect of the Belfast Agreement and is alert to the fundamental fear that drives unionist concerns about Johnson's Brexit.

"At root, the DUP fear is that this is the beginning of a slippery slope to a united Ireland, which they cannot stop if the principle of the cross-community agreement is undermined."

Powell worries about hyping a united Ireland.

"What will happen if we have a border poll and, like the Brexit referendum, it divides Northern Ireland 52% to 48% for leaving? How then would Ireland cope with incorporating 900,000 people against their wishes?" How indeed.

Powell warns against treating unionists as "antediluvian troglodytes" and favours a "cross-community majority" on changing the status quo. This would not amount to a DUP or Sinn Fein veto.

He says Arlene Foster was right to meet loyalist paramilitaries: "a sensible thing".

The DUP will not be surprised that Powell's criticisms got little traction in the Republic, or in Britain, where the Daily Telegraph leads the Boris bandwagon.

This contrasts with the enthusiastic response Powell received on BBC Newsnight a few weeks ago when he was berating the DUP on the backstop.

Hypocritically, there is no similar media enthusiasm for his current strong opposition to a hard border down the Irish Sea.

Powell's empathy is even-handed. He understands that a border in the Irish Sea has the same effect on you DUP unionists as a hard border in Ireland has on Fine Gael nationalists.

Many in the Irish media are not so empathic. They ignore incidents in our recent past that would strike you - and me - as partisan provocations.

Last week, on BBC's Spotlight, Michael Lillis, a former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs, revealed he had coached Gerry Adams on "how to talk to the British". Not a word of query or comment by Irish media.

But these things are in the past. Present provocations are what matter most.

Last week Leo Varadkar, under pressure during a live radio interview, said he would like to see a united Ireland in his lifetime.

As the Taoiseach is a fitness fanatic, this sits on a longer finger than Simon Coveney's remark in November 2017 that he would like to see unity in his "political lifetime".

You can be sure that neither Enda Kenny nor Bertie Ahern would have made such reckless remarks. A month later, the backstop was launched.

Leo Varadkar should have calmed unionist fears by challenging Boris Johnson's stupid reply to Nigel Dodds - that he didn't see why the principle of simple majority should not be applied in Northern Ireland! But even a budget in Northern Ireland requires cross-party support under the Belfast Agreement.

On the plus side, the DUP and the UUP can count on pluralism on the part of Micheal Martin's Fianna Fail. And you will find some Southern media more fair than feline BBC presenters.

Last Sunday, on RTE's The Week In Politics, Aine Lawlor tenaciously grilled her panel on Jonathan Powell's observations: "Why should the DUP swallow a customs arrangement that divides them from the UK? A customs arrangement we didn't want on the island of Ireland. Why is it good enough for them?"

The DUP's most principled course of action would be to seek the maximum cross-party support for a UK-wide customs union with a seven-year limit.

It protects your friends, punishes your foes and offers a better deal to the UK and to both parts of the island of Ireland.

Dear DUP,

Eoghan Harris is a Dublin-based political commentator

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