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Jon Tonge: Theresa May needs to be frank about just who is going to be in control in Northern Ireland



Professor Jon Tonge

Professor Jon Tonge

Professor Jon Tonge

Theresa May's 905-word eulogy to 'her' deal might contain lots of cogent points but will do nothing to appease her erstwhile Westminster allies in the DUP.

As the Prime Minister notes, the 'Barnier-May' Withdrawal Agreement has attracted much enthusiasm from Northern Ireland's business and farming communities. It seems they have wearied of being told that every constitutional deal is a sell-out or betrayal. Cash, cattle and crops matter more than constitutional wrangling in their economic prism.

Content that the constitutional question was settled via the consent principle in 1998, the main concern of many food producers and farmers is to avoid a no deal exit from the EU. After all, it was one Arlene Foster who told the Prime Minister in 2016 shortly after the Brexit referendum that Northern Ireland's agri-food sector was "uniquely vulnerable".

Businesses appear genuinely excited about the prospect of continuing unfettered access to the EU market and to the UK Single Market. Great Britain's trade with Northern Ireland ought to continue apace, notwithstanding increased checks. Northern Ireland's economy - for so long a public sector dependent under-performer - might even boom.

The DUP backed itself into a difficult corner in opposing any regulatory divergence which made Northern Ireland a more distinctive, EU-leaning part of the UK. Yet Northern Ireland IS a different part of the UK. Its position inside is explicitly conditional; its social legislation differs; divergence was growing under devolution (the DUP favoured corporation tax alignment with the rest of Ireland…) and a large minority of its people hold Irish citizenship.

Moving beyond objective economic and constitutional analysis and into partisan politics however, the DUP's fury with the Prime Minister is understandable. For May has acted duplicitously. She allowed the removal of paragraph 50 of the Joint EU-UK report agreed last December, which offered the prospect of local agreement to alignment - without bothering to inform the region's largest party.

Now the PM tells us she will ensure there will be 'no divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain'. As EU Single Market rules will prevail in Northern Ireland, her only choice as UK Prime Minister will be to follow those rules for part of 'her' Kingdom. Those EU rules will probably be fine and sensible, so who cares - not businesses probably - but she does need to be frank about who is in control.

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The Prime Minister also claims this arrangement is "expressly temporary, with a mechanism by which it can be terminated". In the same way that life is temporary and will eventually be terminated, yes. But its average length is 81 years - and you wouldn't bet on the UK-EU Commission agreeing that the backstop can be safely removed much shy of that. And the PM knows full well that the 'mechanism' by which transitional arrangements are terminated has dual controls. She cannot act alone.

Among other odd claims, the Prime Minister asserts that the Chief Constable has put cross-border policing in an EU context - not particularly. Most risibly of all, the preservation of the Common Travel Area is passed off as her victory. It came into being more than three decades before she was born and was never under threat from the EU.

But raging against a PM's unsubtle dissembling and half-truths does not a policy make. The PM is determined to see this through as the only deal in town, one seeming to attract considerable local sympathy.

The DUP raged against a previous 'only show in town' two decades ago but ended up working the deal. Whether the party has to do likewise this time depends now on parliamentary mathematics.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

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