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Leo Varadkar is unionists' best ally over Brexit, so why is Arlene Foster being so intransigent?

Her voters may not be natural europhiles, but DUP leader needs to be pragmatic about the EU, says Alban Maginness


Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar

AFP/Getty Images

Leo Varadkar

In the run-up to the UK referendum on Brexit, the DUP, under Arlene Foster's leadership, sensibly took a low-key approach to the issue and, although they were officially for leaving, it was widely regarded as a purely notional stance. Indeed, some senior DUP people admitted privately that they voted to remain. Like Sinn Fein, the DUP did not campaign vigorously in the referendum and were, like most others, surprised by the strength of the Leave vote.

Unionist voters in Northern Ireland were split over Brexit, many farmers voting to stay in the EU, together with an assortment of business people and professionals, who voted Remain. It is estimated that at least 34% of unionist voters voted against leaving Europe.

For many unionists, the EU was an important commercial partner. The Ulster Unionist Party openly allowed their members to vote as they pleased on the issue. The 56% majority Remain vote here could not have been achieved without sizeable unionist support.

In light of all this, it is reasonable to suppose that many ordinary unionists simply took a pragmatic decision to vote Remain. They were not - and are not - natural europhiles, but saw the economic good sense in remaining in a huge European market and political community, which did not threaten their political identity.

The fact that it opened up the border between north and south was acceptable, made common sense and was non-threatening. It is, therefore, perplexing why the DUP are now taking such a strong pro-Brexit line.

Arlene Foster's reaction to the Brexit negotiations has been uncompromising, even though she, along with her party, wants to see a soft border. But she does not want the UK to be a member of the current customs union, nor the single market.

She has emphasised that she does not want a border in the middle of the Irish Sea, which would, in her words, "damage the constitutional integrity of the UK". She, apparently, wants a Brexit similar to Jacob Rees-Mogg MP.

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Historically, unionism has been self-protecting, pragmatic and independently minded. Its primary strategy was to secure and safeguard its people in Ireland.

What the DUP is doing is to abandon pragmatism on Brexit and to threaten the long-term interests of unionism.

It is, surely, in the objective political interest of unionists to be pro-European, as membership with the Republic guarantees a stable and friendly political environment that has drawn out the toxin of partition and the border.

What Brexit does is to reintroduce the toxin of partition and destabilise the relationship between Ireland and the UK. Ironically, it is this destabilisation that will adversely impact most on unionism.

Therefore, for the DUP to reject the EU's pragmatic proposals to give Northern Ireland special consideration that would have mitigated the mess of Brexit is absurd.

The EU's aim is to establish a soft border (with which the DUP officially agree) between north and south and to effectively replicate the status quo.

DUP objections are dangerous, because they threaten to undermine Theresa May's exceptionally difficult process of facilitating a stable and smooth exit by the UK from the EU.

The DUP say that they will not permit a border in the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland, because that would undermine the constitutional relationship between the UK and Northern Ireland.

But nothing that the EU has proposed would mean any constitutional change at all, but would merely safeguard trading and economic relations within the island of Ireland to the mutual benefit of all.

The DUP will, ultimately, have to decide whether their politics are driven by sentiment or a pragmatism that will protect the unionist position.

But everything that they have done so far regarding Brexit has undermined the unionist position.

Whether or not they realise it, Leo Varadkar is their best friend. He is working diligently to construct a practical solution, while respecting the British decision to leave, providing maximum protection for the economic and political relations between Northern Ireland and the EU.

Arlene Foster should realise that Northern Ireland retaining membership of the customs union and the single market is the best way to avoid a hard border.

And if this proposition is politically unacceptable to the DUP, then the only alternative is the continued membership of the UK in the customs union and single market, which would thereby avoid a border in the Irish Sea. She cannot have it both ways.

This is not a fanciful position, as Corbyn's Labour Party is halfway there with membership of a customs union and will probably move to accept the membership of the single market soon.

Arlene Foster's DUP needs to adopt a pragmatic position on Brexit that protects their medium and long-term interests.

Their present position does not do that and, if that continues, they will ultimately come to grief.

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