Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Boris Johnson's EU deal completes an equally remarkable DUP transformation

Boris Johnson at the European Council summit (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Boris Johnson at the European Council summit (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Boris Johnson’s deal with the EU is a U-turn extraordinary even by his considerable chameleonic standards.

Having personally told the DUP faithful that regulatory and customs checks within the UK were something over which “no Conservative British Prime Minister could or should preside”, Boris the Betrayer has decided he will be that Prime Minister.

Jeremy Corbyn would probably be more welcome at the DUP conference next weekend.

The deal means the DUP’s equally remarkable transformation is complete.

It is effectively now a Pro-Remain and Pro-Good Friday Agreement outfit.

Having spent the last few weeks advocating the parallel consent and mutual vetoes of the Good Friday Agreement it once so bitterly opposed, the DUP will now line up with the pro-Remain parties tomorrow desperately trying to thwart Brexit.

For the DUP, remaining in the EU is better than special status for Northern Ireland.

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It is doubtful whether the DUP could have done much different given the Prime Minister’s willingness to chuck them overboard at the red line in the Irish Sea.

For Boris Johnson this was all about fulfilling his Brexit pledge – at anyone’s expense – and then winning an election on an “I did the deal” ticket.

But the DUP’s offer of regulatory all-island alignment two weeks ago teed up his deal.

DUP Leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds (Aaron Chown/PA)
DUP Leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds (Aaron Chown/PA)

From there it was always probable that customs alignment with the EU would follow. Logically, why should one not accompany the other to maintain a soft border on the island of Ireland?

Placing faith in a unionist veto at Stormont was bizarre given the absence of the Assembly for 1,000 days and the slenderness of its prospects of returning.

The fantasy element of the new Withdrawal Deal refers to four-year rolling programmes of consent from a non-functioning institution.

But even in the event of a miraculous Assembly return, there is no genuine community veto – just the majoritarian decision-making unionists once loved but now fear.

And the default position is that Northern Ireland remains heavily EU-aligned if the Stormont cobwebs grow larger. There is no local vote to opt into EU arrangements.

Being shafted by Conservative erstwhile allies in government is nothing new.

Maybe the DUP should join the Liberal Democrats in a mutual therapy group.

It is a huge embarrassment for the DUP nonetheless.

Assuming the deal passes the Commons, Brexit will join same-sex marriage and abortion as key Westminster defeats in the last few months, inflicted at a time when the DUP is supposed to be a key player in London.

So Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds face an awkward time at the looming DUP conference explaining the party’s annus horribilis. But sympathy rather than censure is probable.

It is entirely possible that the DUP bites back and helps the Opposition parties defeat the government tomorrow (SAT).

A Remain parliament seeking a second referendum as a minimum could yet sink the Prime Minister, if the European Research Group finds their inner unionism trumps their Brexit desires and joins the DUP and all others in an unholy alliance.

If the deal goes down in parliament it will reappear at the centre of the general election campaign.

Opposing it – with surely nothing else on offer from the EU this time and the deal popular amongst many electors – might not be a great vote winner for the DUP, given 30% of its vote last time came from Remain supporters.

But with the UUP preoccupied with its biannual leadership change, where does your average DUP voter go?

And if Northern Ireland’s alignment with the EU brings an economic united Ireland so much nearer, the constitutional question which has kept the DUP in business for so long will loom even larger.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power (Oxford University Press).

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