Robin Wilson: DUP 'kingmakers' run risk of making same mistakes as Molyneaux
Whatever government emerges from the Brexit wreckage will turn to Dublin for assistance in running NI, writes Robin Wilson
Lloyd George, principal architect of the constitutional arrangements on this island bequeathed a century ago, described Ireland as ‘a small chip on the imperial board’.
True, at times, as when Charles Stewart Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party held the balance of power at Westminster in the 1880s, leading William Gladstone to advance the first Home Rule Bill, the stars would so align for an Irish politician to play kingmaker in London. But with Liberal defections to the Tory unionist cause, Gladstone fell and Parnell’s credibility with him.
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Irish leaders who behaved as if such temporary conditions were enduring were to find themselves beached as the political tide flowed elsewhere. James Molyneaux was victim of that fate a century later.
Molyneaux’s mentor was the English politician Enoch Powell—rendered a pariah in Britain for his racist ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968 yet later elected as Ulster Unionist MP for South Down—who glumly declared that all political careers ended in failure. As for Powell, for Molyneaux Westminster symbolised the union and his leadership of the UUP there was associated with an arrangement with the then Labour government to keep the latter in office, until it fell — over Scottish devolution — in 1979.
Molyneaux ingratiated himself with the new Thatcher administration and was astounded when in 1985 it signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, giving Dublin a significant role in Northern Ireland’s affairs. In the massive protests against the agreement which followed, it was the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Ian Paisley, and his deputy, Peter Robinson—not Molyneaux—who played the prominent role.
Now it seems the successors to Paisley and Robinson at the helm of the DUP are making the same mistake—potentially at similar cost to their political cause.
Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds could bask at the weekend in the global media attention to their party conference in Belfast, including the solicitations of Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary whose periodic racist remarks have also drawn widespread criticism.
Dodds and Johnson were on all fours in their disdain for the Irish ‘backstop’ at the heart of the argument over the putative deal with the EU on Brexit achieved by the prime minister, Theresa May — a deal for which she was drawn to Remain majority Northern Ireland this week to drum up support.
After May’s hapless performance in calling a snap election last year, failing to gain a stronger mandate for the Brexit negotiations, the DUP found itself plunged into the same kingmaker role as Parnell’s IPP in 1885. Alongside the far-Right Eurosceptic faction of the Tory Party led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, it has sought to hold May’s feet to the fire in supporting a hard Brexit, rejecting any feasible deal with the rest of the European Union to hold to the British ‘sovereignty’ Powell would so have admired.
Meantime, all has been ghostly quiet at Stormont — if not among public servants pained by unrelenting austerity and budget uncertainty — with the DUP having lost interest in its loveless embrace of Sinn Fein (the latter no more rueful) since the collapse of power-sharing nearly two years ago.
Yet the political constellation is threatening to move swiftly against the party.
For over a year now, polls in Britain have been showing a majority in favour of remaining in the EU, a majority which has only grown as the reality of the deal — as distinct from the lavish promises by the Leave side in 2016 — has hoved into view. The recent massive poll for Channel 4 News put Remain twice as far ahead as Leave was then.
Worse, from a DUP point of view — however the party’s sectarian blinkers blind it — support for a no-deal, harder-still Brexit does not stretch beyond a small minority. In particular, business is aghast at the prospect of massive queues at Dover and hopelessly disrupted continental supply chains.
The concern of the Confederation of British Industry in Northern Ireland is now out in the open, but the tension with the DUP’s sectarian populism had been simmering. Early last year I spoke to a senior business figure who despaired of the party’s ideological antipathy towards the ‘island economy’, with whose future he saw Northern Ireland as being necessarily in alignment.
Come December 11, the parliamentary arithmetic is such as to ensure May’s deal will be voted down, by her own Europhobe rebels as well as some Tory Remainers, plus the combined opposition — despite the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, being a closet Brexiteer. Since EU leaders have made it crystal-clear that there will be no renegotiation, the alternatives then remain leaving the EU with no deal or shamefacedly remaining after all.
Only a second referendum — not the general election Corbyn prefers, on which the dissident Tories will not indulge the hard-left figure — can resolve that question. And there is now also a majority in the country for such a ‘people’s vote’, including the option to remain.
If the Brexit project ignominiously collapses, Johnson and Rees-Mogg will go down with it. And where would that leave the DUP? As with Molyneaux, powerless at Westminster while friendless in Northern Ireland — where direct rule will eventually have to be renewed.
There is only one actor which emerges from this imbroglio with its credit strengthened — the Irish government. The lead EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, a former commissioner for regional policy responsible for the PEACE funds after the Belfast agreement, has clearly followed an Irish, not a British, steer throughout.
Within a now hopelessly polarised Northern Ireland too, the small non-sectarian political constituency, reflecting the cross-sectarian Remain majority, has swung towards the Irish side of the argument — more concerned to remain in a European union than a United Kingdom one.
Any future assembly at Stormont would now, as with Belfast City Council, have a majority in which that centre ground would support ‘progressive’ proposals — such as on marriage equality — endorsed by the nationalist bloc, leaving unionists in the minority.
And, in the absence of renewed devolution — the DUP’s veto no longer as acceptable as it was to a Tony Blair weakened by the Iraq debacle in 2007 — whatever government emerges from the Brexit wreckage at Westminster will once more turn to Dublin to assist it in stewarding the troublesome north of the island, repairing damaged British-Irish relations in the process.
In 1921, when the Sinn Fein delegation to the treaty talks in London berated the British side over the Ulster question, Lloyd George said he would much prefer if a ‘fire curtain’ could be placed down the Irish Sea. The DUP could find itself on the wrong side of history’s curtain when it falls.