Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: DUP's limited tactical switch doesn't mean that Johnson is able to trumpet a done deal


Prime Minister Boris Johnson and DUP leader Arlene Foster
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and DUP leader Arlene Foster
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

"DUP opens door to new Brexit deal for Johnson" trumpeted yesterday's Times newspaper.

You had to feel for DUP MLA Christopher Stalford when BBC Northern Ireland's Mark Carruthers raised the newspaper's lead story with him, live on The View, on Thursday night.

If it came as news to a startled Stalford, it was probably likewise to most of the rest of the DUP, not to mention Boris Johnson, the UK government and the EU.

It was certainly not fake news from The Times - but the story was somewhat overhyped.

The DUP has acknowledged the need for an all-island economy in agriculture and food - but not much else.

Given that the agri-food industry - while very important - accounts for only one-third of cross-border trade, the question begged is what happens in respect of trading arrangements across the border regarding other products?

The problem of the EU's requirement for a backstop would only be alleviated for one sector. While cross-border trading in services could be dealt with online and trusted trader schemes to deal with some goods traffic are not outlandish, the EU would still be required to relax its Single Market stipulations to an extent it has so far shown no sign of doing.

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Not unfairly, the willingness of the DUP to concede some checks at Northern Ireland's ports - the controversial border in the Irish Sea - was talked up.

Again, this is significant but the area conceded by the DUP - the agri-food sector - would produce few such checks in any case. What is reared or grown on Irish/Northern Irish turf tends to stay on such soil.

There are already checks on livestock heading from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and vice versa - and they have hardly collapsed the Union. The DUP would be much more reluctant to concede routine checking of non-agricultural goods arriving at Belfast Port from other parts of the UK. And such checks would seriously disrupt the traffic on Boris's fabled bridge from Stranraer.

The DUP has been obliged to give itself political cover for its limited tactical switch. Raising the prospect of control via the Northern Ireland Assembly - remember that? - is one obvious device.

The second is a restatement of rejection of any alignment to an EU Customs Union and Single Market from both the Prime Minister and the DUP.

The third is warm words from the Conservative leader, reciprocated by the DUP, regarding the continuing relationship between the two parties.

There is nervousness within the DUP over the possibility (albeit one which now seems remote) of a no-deal Brexit, for which the party might be blamed. Such blame would be detrimental to the prospects of winning Remain seats, whether retaining South Belfast, or prising North Down. There are also differences between those tolerant of no deal, like Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley and the more pragmatic leadership trio of Arlene Foster, Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson.

The DUP has never been an outright no-deal party and will settle for a deal which helps preserve its local electoral dominance.

Whether the DUP achieves that now depends upon whether Boris Johnson can acquire trusted trader status in any deal he reaches with the EU.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of recent books on the DUP and UUP

Belfast Telegraph


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