Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Unionism’s Brexit civil war to be followed by bitter election

Nigel Dodds
Nigel Dodds
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

So the European Union rejects the idea of a non-existent Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly determining the contours of the EU single market, covering 500 million people? Just fancy that.

The Boris Johnson-DUP offering to the EU was always about the optics, not the substance. It was a threadbare attempt to shift the blame for a no-deal Brexit upon the EU, a 'We've moved, now it's the EU's turn' gambit.

DUP leader Arlene Foster was irritated by the negative domestic reaction. "I realise you are never a prophet in your own land" she lamented. But it is profits in their own land that concern businesses frightened of a no-deal Brexit. They foresee economic disaster from an absolutist EU departure: customs barriers to free trade, tariffs and the end of subsidies. A faux offer to the EU based upon unworkable proposals and built upon phantom political institutions worsened such fears.

The unionist civil war which has erupted is good box office but also unedifying. The DUP has not fully abandoned its blood-red line of no border in the Irish Sea. Rather, the party has signed up to a unionist veto around such a border, using the cross-community consent mechanisms of the fabled Good Friday Agreement, a pact they famously opposed. But it was a U-turn, the UUP smelled weakness and the DUP was torn between lauding its generous changes and insisting nothing had changed.

Understandably, the UUP think it outrageous that the DUP has moved from no consideration of an Irish Sea border to a position where the DUP would block such a measure in an Assembly that does not sit. But presumably given the UUP's opposition to any internal border, that party would join the DUP in vetoing the regulatory alignment with the EU which produced such internal UK checks?

Of course, the DUP has form for jaw-dropping U-turns. This weekend marks the 13th anniversary of the St Andrews Agreement, when Ian Paisley accepted all in constitutional terms that he had previously dismissed as a one-way street to a united Ireland. The DUP signing up to an all-Ireland economy under EU regulation is in the same mould, but the difference is that the DUP knew the St Andrews deal would fly. Barnier and Tusk are not Hain and Blair, ready to gratefully lap up the DUP's offering and, extraordinarily, hail the party leader as a political saviour.

What happens now? It is possible that the Prime Minister throws the DUP overboard somewhere in red-line territory between Liverpool and Larne. He could offer the EU customs union as well as single market alignment for Northern Ireland. Johnson could then hail a deal and, rather like Ian Paisley, hope that we quietly forget his past utterances.

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But more probable is a bitter no-deal Brexit election. And lo it will come to pass that the UUP-DUP war of words subsides, except in South Antrim where they fight each other in a close contest. The UUP needs the DUP absent to give Robin Swann's party a chance in Fermanagh and South Tyrone; Nigel Dodds (inset) will not be expecting the UUP to muddy the DUP pitch in North Belfast, where the electorate is used to hard borders. They're called peace walls.

How much the DUP's contribution towards a no-deal Brexit will cost the party support in other seats remains the great imponderable.

One in three DUP voters at the last Westminster election said they wanted the UK to remain in the EU. That's 97,400 voters at odds with party policy.

They stayed loyal in 2017 but you can see why the DUP might not want to risk being blamed for a hard Brexit. Hence the party's ostensibly remarkably generous offer to the EU. The problem is that it is now impossible for the DUP to up that offer. And how many believed in its authenticity anyway?

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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