Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: A fudge flavoured with constructive ambiguity may be to DUP's taste

Mrs Foster speaks at a Press conference
Mrs Foster speaks at a Press conference
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

A scrum of reporters, Press releases, meetings, statements, Press conferences and off-the-record briefings.

Foster versus Barnier. The showdown. Involving a party with one MEP. This is how you 'de-dramatise' the border, apparently.

All the grandstanding told us nothing new. The only single market of interest to the DUP is the UK version.

The only single market the EU recognises is its own.

It was agreed last December that no new regulatory barriers can develop between Northern Ireland and the UK unless the Executive and Assembly - they're the ones who last met 637 days ago, if your memory is that good - agree.

Except that it wasn't really agreed, in that the EU still want some form of special status, although 'alignment' has replaced 'status' in a softening of language, the latter term anathema to the DUP.

The most obvious blurring is over what might constitute new regulatory barriers between Britain and Northern Ireland. There are already some trading checks, on livestock for example, in the same way that even a common travel area involves checks.

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Try boarding a Liverpool-Belfast plane without agreeing to an identity check and see how far you'll get. So the EU and the DUP will have to agree a form of words that rules out 'new' regulatory barriers, but could extend existing ones - still an awkward task.

Amid much ambiguity and verbiage, what might yet tentatively emerge is indecipherable fudge and the short-stay parking we saw last December transferred into the long-term bay.

The most ambitious compromise would be a continuing common trade area in the short term - although that term most certainly cannot not be used - between the UK and Ireland, the trade equivalent of the people-based, long-standing common travel area.

It gives Dublin what it wanted - no hard border and unfettered cross-border trade - and the EU has consistently told us the interests of the Irish Government are paramount. It gets the UK Government off the hook for now regarding the border.

The DUP's primary concern is addressed: departure from the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK. It is special status, but for all of the UK and Ireland.

The UK staying close to the EU customs union isn't a big problem for the DUP (UK Brexit fine, Great Britain Brexit not fine), but it is for Rees-Mogg, Johnson et al.

And there are more Conservative hardline Brexiteers than there are DUP MPs.

So the Prime Minister needs to be confident that a Labour-plus-all -other-parties-plus-hardline-Brexiteer alliance would not defeat the remaining Conservative MPs plus the DUP 10 on a compromise plan.

But the chances of this happening remain small. It maintains the EU single market, but also creates a bespoke UK-Irish market, one which, if goods were passed on to other EU countries, could indeed undermine the integrity of the EU single market. Yet, the initial December fudge stated that the UK should resolve the border via its own, broad-based EU trading relationship.

If this was not possible, there should be specific solutions for Ireland. If both these options fail, there would be regulatory alignment. No one wants divergence between Britain and Northern Ireland or the UK and Ireland's key sectors, such as agriculture, anyway, so this makes sense.

The former First Minister knows that Northern Ireland's agri-food sector is "uniquely vulnerable both to the loss of EU funding, and to potential tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade".

It was her that told the Prime Minister in the fabled Foster-McGuinness letter of 2016, the last gasp of Executive cooperation - even if DUP chief executive, Timothy Johnston rather spoilt things by telling us it took 10 days just to produce that letter stating the obvious.

There is much at stake for the DUP and Arlene Foster.

Being sold out by the Prime Minister would be a humiliating end to what Nigel Dodds described as a "five-year deal".

But fudges and compromises may be more likely. The DUP may finally get to like constructive ambiguity.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

Belfast Telegraph


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