Belfast Telegraph

Theresa May's handling of the current crisis would make the Charge of the Light Brigade look orderly

If unionists had grown up in nationalist communities, they would know that London can never be trusted to shelve its own interests for the sake of Northern Ireland, argues Eilis O'Hanlon

Just when it seemed that the countdown to Brexit couldn't get any more crazy and shambolic, it did. Over the weekend, official sources had been working overtime to provide reassurance that an agreement could be cobbled together at Monday's meeting between Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, which would allow talks on Britain's exit from the EU to move to the next stage.

At the last minute, Mrs May was forced to eat humble pie after DUP leader Arlene Foster apparently grew alarmed that the British government was making too many concessions on the issue of the Irish border and that this would weaken Northern Ireland's place within the UK.

Some reports claim that it was the leak by a journalist in Dublin of an earlier, subsequently binned, draft of the proposed agreement which spooked the DUP into putting its foot down; but the world has come to a sorry pass if politicians are now basing crucial decisions over Brexit on some rubbish they've read on Twitter.

When did checking all the facts before leaping into action stop being the best option?

Whatever the real reason for the DUP's 11th-hour wobble, it's astonishing that the situation was allowed to get to that stage.

It certainly doesn't say much for the relationship - or, rather the lack of one - between Theresa May and Arlene Foster.

Mrs Foster may no longer be First Minister, but she remains the most senior political leader in Northern Ireland, as well as having a veto over the survival of the minority Conservative government.

The two women ought to have a better understanding than this of one another's positions on the single biggest issue facing the country.

There are a number of factors which might have contributed to such a breakdown of communication.

The DUP leader does not sit at Westminster, for starters, so she hasn't built up the day-to-day contacts and personal interactions that can help smooth over misunderstandings before they reach crisis pitch.

Mrs Foster did take part in negotiations leading to the confidence and supply agreement, which was drawn up after the election with the Tories; but once that was signed, it was straight back to Belfast for more talks on restoring devolution.

She could be criticised as such for not paying sufficient attention to how the unravelling political disposition in London might impact back home. It could also be argued that when they had the Tories over a barrel back in June, the DUP should have insisted on a much stronger role in Brexit talks. Conservatives were hardly in a position to say no. But the main fault for this week's comedy of errors unquestionably lies with Theresa May. It's frankly jaw-dropping that Downing Street did not keep the DUP fully informed at every stage of this process. Surprises are never helpful in negotiations.

It seems that the Government, despite "several briefings" in recent weeks, did not even show the DUP the proposed final draft on the Irish border issue until late on Monday morning, by which time the Prime Minister had already arrived in Brussels to announce that a deal had been finalised.

According to deputy leader Nigel Dodds, the party knew on "immediate receipt" of the proposed deal that what was being offered by the British government was "completely unacceptable".

To have been caught short by this development suggests a political incompetence on the part of Theresa May so staggering that it makes the Charge of the Light Brigade look like a triumph of careful planning.

The Prime Minister simply does not appear to have the interpersonal, diplomatic skills needed to bring people along with her. That was made clear during the general election when she surrounded herself with a small cadre of advisers, shutting herself off from the rest of the party. She didn't heed colleagues' concerns, to disastrous effect. Now, the same thing has happened again. Mrs May seems to have believed she could sign off on some fudged form of words to allow the next round of Brexit talks to begin in the New Year, without asking Arlene Foster whether she agreed with the final text.

Courtesy alone suggests that she ought to have cleared it with the Fermanagh woman first. Lacking that, some basic political horse sense should have kicked in. You save fights for opponents, not friends.

Because of that schoolgirl error, the Tory leader had to go right back to square one with the DUP, only now with added distrust as to what the Government was really playing at.

Number 10 should have known that Ulster Protestants generally prefer plain speaking to the convoluted, deliberately ambiguous language of official agreements, which strive to be all things to all men.

What's taking shape in Brussels could have been designed to drive unionists up the wall with frustration.

The DUP is not entirely without blame. If confusion exists in Westminster and Dublin about the party's position on Brexit, that's because it's never satisfactorily explained how to reconcile the desire that Northern Ireland's peculiar needs be recognised post-Brexit with its demand for a clean break with the EU. One or other may be achievable, but not both at the same time.

Unionists, as a whole, far from being constantly alert for signs of British betrayal, as the sectarian cliches suggest, are also much too trusting of the British to look after their interests.

If they'd grown up in nationalist communities, they'd have learned the valuable lesson early on that the British can never be relied upon to put aside their own interests for the sake of Ulster.

Unionists, bless them, still seem to think that British governments - especially ones headed by the self-styled 'Conservative and Unionist Party' - will do the right thing by their fellow subjects of the Crown when push comes to shove.

They might even be making the same mistake again, as they inch towards signing off on a new form of magic words that will allow this crisis to be overcome.

Yesterday, the DUP and the British government were at least singing again from the same hymn sheet, proving that a little communication actually works. Fancy that.

Whether it will solve the underlying contradictions in how Brexit can work in Northern Ireland is another matter altogether. There are still many chances for that side of the deal to unravel between now and March 29, 2019, when the UK's pencilled in to leave the EU.

Perhaps the odd phonecall now and then between Theresa May and Arlene Foster would help avoid future drama?

Belfast Telegraph


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