Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Why it would be wrong for DUP to view May's humiliation as victory

By Jon Tonge

Amid their apoplexy over the EU withdrawal agreement, the DUP's MPs might have enjoyed Theresa May's abject discomfort in the Commons yesterday.

It represented a victory - if perhaps a temporary one - for Nigel Dodds and his Westminster colleagues.

Humiliatingly, the Prime Minister was forced to abandon a vote to avoid a rout. She acknowledged it was the "Irish backdrop" that was causing most angst among parliamentarians, well beyond the DUP 10.

Quite why it took until yesterday for the PM to realise her chances of winning a parliamentary majority were akin to those of the DUP taking West Belfast at the next election, one can only wonder.

The Prime Minister offered precious little to assuage DUP anxieties.

Going back to Brussels to seek clarification of the backstop arrangement seems a colossal waste of time.

The legal text the PM has signed is clear. Her Attorney General certainly grasped it. The backstop can only be ended by joint agreement between the EU and the UK.

Theresa May can promise as many Commons votes as she wishes and they could all be 643-0 results in favour of ending the backstop. But if the EU says we cannot leave as, in its view, this risks hardening the border, we cannot quit the backstop.

Such Commons votes might as well be pulled. At least there's expertise in that now. The meaningful vote surely ought to have taken place before the PM signed the deal. Instead, we now face many more weeks arguing over a deal already signed. Cry January, anyone?

There is much irony in all this. The European Court of Justice ruled yesterday that we can readily tear up our solemn letter of EU withdrawal without fuss. It's actually harder for my students to pull a rubbish essay once submitted. Yet in the event of withdrawal going ahead, Northern Ireland might never be able to depart a purportedly temporary backstop.

Even in the absence of a vote, yesterday was a day of reckoning for the Prime Minister: comeuppance for not being straight with the DUP. For all the (considerable) merits of her deal, did she really expect the DUP to support her wholesale removal of the local veto over regulatory alignment that the party insisted upon - and she agreed to - 12 months ago?

Did the PM honestly think that the DUP would readily accept checks upon British goods arriving at Northern Ireland's ports and airports? Did she genuinely believe that a potentially unlimited alignment of Northern Ireland - alone - within EU rules would be swallowed by one of the most belligerent, hardline parties anywhere in western Europe?

If the answers are yes, the PM hasn't acquired much knowledge of her erstwhile parliamentary allies since she signed a deal with them 18 months ago.

Yet the naivety continues - or perhaps the PM simply no longer cares. Even though Arlene Foster categorically ruled out "domestic tinkering", the PM hopes that making the political declaration a bit 'nicer' for the DUP might somehow change the music.

Equally, though, yesterday's humbling of the PM did not mean DUP victory. The fracture between political and economic unionism - for decades marching in step (literally, in days of yore) - that has emerged in recent weeks is serious and potentially irreparable. All the survey evidence from LucidTalk suggests a growing shift in favour of Irish unity among Northern Ireland's population. A border poll may not be long delayed.

Theresa May got one clear message across in the Commons yesterday: that an absolutist defence of the Union may endanger its existence.

'Soft' unionists may be malleable in their constitutional preferences in a way not associated with their forebears. Offer them a Northern Ireland very closely aligned to the rest of Ireland within a prosperous overarching EU framework and they may take the deal. It may represent a reconstituted Britishness more cognisant of an economically and politically shared territory.

If their unionism ultimately dissipates as a consequence, the DUP is fishing in shallower waters - while demographic changes do not help the party.

The DUP still has a decent chance of seeing an all-UK denouement to this sorry saga.

May's deal cannot fly unless miraculously modified. No deal could happen by default but there is only modest parliamentary support.

Norway-plus is really 'EU-minus', which would put all of the UK where the EU plans to put NI - not a problem for the DUP.

A second referendum, the odds on which have been shortening for some time, could be awkward, though. The DUP would have to again campaign for a Leave vote, placing the party at odds with majority Northern Ireland opinion.

But at least it would produce a UK-wide outcome and consequences. That is, unless the current withdrawal agreement appears on the ballot paper.

And if the British people vote for that, the DUP might feel betrayed not merely by Theresa May, but by many millions of its fellow UK citizens.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

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