Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: DUP has got its wish but now is time for party to tell us all exactly what it wants

Nigel Dodds
Nigel Dodds
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Not bad night's work for the DUP then, in an odd sort of way. An unwanted deal defeated, a Prime Minister humiliated and a Conservative Party clinging to office today on its 10 votes.

At least that's one deal that is still on. Maybe a good time to ask for another billion?

This was a disaster foretold for the Prime Minister, even if the scale still shocked.

As DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds declared on Monday: "Nothing the EU has said is inconsistent with the withdrawal agreement… nothing has fundamentally changed."

Dodds and his party have insisted for weeks that there needed to be legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement.

The Attorney General's 'EU Exit' document acknowledges that agreement, as a legally binding document, is all that matters.

Theresa May's lame admission to MPs that a letter from nice Mr Juncker was "not the same level of assurance as some members wish" merely emphasised how a month had been wasted since the pulling of the vote in December.

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The PM may have got a good deal: frictionless access for Northern Ireland to the EU. She deserves admiration for her willingness to address the House of Commons with frequency and courtesy.

Her concern to avoid a hard border - denied as having ever existed in an interesting piece of revisionism from the DUP leader yesterday - has long been evident.

Yet in dealing with the DUP the PM has acted like a jilted partner, unable to take "no" as an answer, increasingly embarrassing herself. May's risible claim that the EU's assurances had legal effect - when the providers said the opposite - exacerbated frustration.

Any country can seek to pull out of an international treaty, such as the withdrawal agreement, via the Vienna Law of Treaties.

But it is difficult, takes years and there is no guarantee of victory.

A bit like Brexit itself, then.

May the saleswoman offered an extraordinary pitch: "I've got you a backstop which is fantastic because you will never need to use it."

Its supposed non-use was premised on a new trade deal with the EU being concluded by December 2020, even though it has taken every other country at least four times as long to reach such an arrangement.

If this is the PM's best sales pitch, no wonder the nation runs a trade deficit.

In attempting to get the DUP onside, the Government published its 'Commitments to Northern Ireland and its integral place in the United Kingdom' document last week.

Leaving aside that Northern Ireland's position is conditional (unlike any other part of the UK) the tone sounds desperate.

Northern Ireland's unique alignment with the EU will be for a 'small fraction' - the phrase appears five times in 13 pages - of those rules underpinning the single market.

The 'small fraction' phrase does not appear anywhere in the EU's 585-page withdrawal agreement, and the basis of the UK's quantification is not provided.

The document then talks about "strong protections in law that guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland's businesses" to the UK market.

That was never the issue.

It was the possibility of checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from GreatBritain that concerned some unionists. That issue is studiously avoided.

Incredibly, the Government document offered the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive - those well-known bastions of consensus and political progress - a "strong role" if the backstop came into effect.

That's the backstop that isn't going to be needed.

Assembly agreement would be required for new areas of law applying specifically to Northern Ireland because of the withdrawal agreement.

So, a role was offered to a non-existent Assembly and Executive - the same institutions whose veto over EU regulatory alignment had been inserted in the draft withdrawal deal in December 2017 when not sitting, then deleted from the final withdrawal agreement because, Theresa May told Nigel Dodds, the Assembly was not sitting.

Got it?

The DUP will now support the Government in a vote of confidence.

The party views this as May's deal, not a Conservative Party effort, and will never trust Corbyn. Now, the DUP might have to tell us exactly what it wants, beyond the obvious desire for an all-UK arrangement.

One gets the impression the same treatment as the rest of the UK is all the DUP cares about - its very own "equality agenda".

The task of outlining a policy also now confronts the Labour Party, whose Brexiteer leader has so far presented platitudes about wanting an election as a substitute for coherence.

For Remainers, there is hope of preventing Brexit, but their arguments often need tuning.

Anna Soubry's pitch in the Commons this week was that a "new generation of young people" had emerged since the referendum in 2016, replacing older ones - as if the deaths of 160,000 referendum voters each year justifies a new contest.

There is an intellectual and political case for another referendum - but on the basis of asking "are you sure?", not voter mortality.

So Glastonbury-on-College Green seen nightly on our TV screens might not be dismantled any time soon.

The dreadful vox pops will continue, as those who got us into this mess (no doubt the first to complain when they are paying tariffs on goods) implore the Government to "get on with it" - with what? And how?

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool. He has co-authored books on Northern Ireland's four largest parties

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