Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: The reasons to be sceptical of the blueprint are clear, but it is still unlikely to hurt the DUP

Boris Johnson with DUP leader Arlene Foster (Niall Carson/PA)
Boris Johnson with DUP leader Arlene Foster (Niall Carson/PA)
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

So the DUP supports an all-Ireland economy within the EU single market and backs checks on goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland? Who would have thought it?

The DUP's apparent compromises enraged two types. First, there were those in the Jim Allister and Jamie Bryson mould, on permanent alert for the merest hint of DUP retreat.

In the other corner, there was the rest of Twitter, never slow to be outraged and convinced this was a fake offer from Boris Johnson and his DUP allies.

Having spent the last two years demanding the DUP support an island-wide EU single market, DUP critics now raged about the DUP offering, er, precisely that.

Taken at face value, the Conservative-DUP U-turn was remarkable.

It is less than a year since Johnson told the DUP conference that regulatory checks on goods travelling from one part of the UK to another would be "damaging to the fabric of the Union ... no British Conservative government could or should sign up to any such arrangement".

While the DUP had recently conceded the value of an island-wide economy in agriculture and food, the UK Government's proposals, signed off by the DUP leadership, were far more comprehensive in nature.

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There was little hint of what was to come at the Policy Exchange event addressed by Arlene Foster on the opening day of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.

Admittedly, most of the 'no surrender' belligerence at a packed meeting came from Kate Hoey. Remarkably, the Labour MP almost managed to make Foster appear Alliance-lite in comparison.

The DUP leader blamed the Taoiseach for ruling out a time-limited backstop but was generally circumspect. Little wonder there was no denunciation of the idea of a border in the Irish Sea, given what was to be proposed 72 hours later.

Yet the reasons why the Conservative-DUP offer invites scepticism are obvious.

It appears one for the optics. It still involves a customs border. The proposals are a smugglers' charter.

While it is true there is already a currency and VAT border, a customs fault line increases the friction.

Above all, though, anything which involves a role for Stormont automatically lacks credibility.

In terms of customs controls, technology works and improves. Stormont does neither.

Supposedly awarding the Northern Ireland Assembly a role was much more about giving the DUP political cover than anything else. And the plans were win-win for the DUP.

If Stormont is not revived, the default position is that Northern Ireland is not aligned to the EU single market. If Stormont is reconvened, parallel consent rules, which would surely be triggered, mean EU alignments would require the support of 40% of unionists and 40% of nationalists.

It would be easy for unionists to engage in blocking.

Those denouncing such vetoes are often people purporting to be the strongest defenders of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

This is ironic given the GFA is a deal which enshrined parallel consent for very important reasons.

Such folk are really a-la-carte majoritarians. If it is a proposal with which they agree, there should be no veto. If they don't like the idea, they are pro-veto. That is simply not how power-sharing deals like the GFA work - anywhere in the world.

But the bigger point is that this is all irrelevant.

Stormont is not coming back any time soon. The idea that it could, every four years, reach decisions on EU alignment is fantasy.

This is an Assembly which has been suspended for almost as much time (46%) as it has sat since coming into being in December 1999.

It is not just that there has been no Executive for the last 1,000 days. There were 2,150 days before then when the institutions were missing in inaction.

It is difficult to see how the DUP moves further from its avowed new position.

Boris Johnson's Government can only hope the EU sees the proposals as at least the basis for negotiation. But the lack of incentives for the EU and the Opposition parties are clear.

Johnson is mandated to request an extension to EU membership, so why would the EU agree the offer? Rather than break the law, Johnson will try and break the Opposition in a 'People versus Parliament' election.

Surprisingly, some commentators think Labour MPs might break ranks and back the PM-DUP position. But why would they put wind in Johnson's sails this side of an election?

Amid considerable blowback from businesses, parties and pressure groups, the DUP has possibly made its electoral position worse, amid anger over its supposed faux compromise.

Yet where does the average DUP voter go?

In one of the most important periods ever for unionism, the UUP's most prominent contribution has been to call yet another leadership contest. One of the contenders, Steve Aiken, did manage - on the BBC's Talkback programme - to get across the key point that the UUP, while supporting Brexit since the referendum result, prefers Remain to no-deal.

But how many voters are aware of this important distinction from the DUP?

The DUP does look isolated, grandstanding about how the Taoiseach will be responsible for imposing a hard border in Ireland.

But the DUP has been isolated many times before. And on polling day they have still had rather more friends than Twitter realised.

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

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