Belfast Telegraph

Tom Kelly: Brexit unrest is being stoked by tin-pot egomaniacs for narrow political advantage

Feelings run high in a packed House of Commons yesterday
Feelings run high in a packed House of Commons yesterday

By Tom Kelly

Unionist politicians in the north of Ireland have been calling British prime ministers "traitors" from Gladstone to Asquith; even mortal enemies Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher managed to share that accolade.

So, Theresa May is in impressive company when the DUP are not just hurling abuse at her, but are actively calling for her resignation.

Without any sense of irony, they deride Mrs May at will, but didn't take it quite so well when Sinn Fein dished it out to Mrs Foster over RHI. (Of course, Sinn Fein have since toned down their invective against Arlene.)

The Prime Minister is in an invidious position. She is caught between her instinctive pragmatism and the intransigence of a political party that has yet to catch up on the 21st century.

To the average British voter, the DUP must be a strange and peculiar wonder. Some may remember the theatrical performances of the late Ian Paisley. Most wouldn't share any of the values that the DUP bring to the political table.

Certainly, there are not many British MPs who would be able to quote Isaiah as Ian Paisley MP did just before he was censured by his parliamentary colleagues. Yet, this quasi-religious party holds the balance of power in the UK by a quirk of fate - one created by a gamble taken by none other than the Prime Minster.

In fairness, one can't blame the DUP for taking full advantage of the arithmetic at Westminster. What we can blame them for is looking at the entire UK through the orange-tinted prism of the parts of Northern Ireland which they represent.

While the largest party in Northern Ireland, they are not representative of modern Northern Ireland. In fairness, they don't even try to. If there's one lesson in politics for politicians it's never to interfere in the internal strife of another party - particularly in the leadership of that party.

Churchill - that most pragmatic of pragmatists and political opportunists - once said: "Politics is almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous, as in war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times."

Mrs May probably understands that better than most. Here's a woman who by stealth became Prime Minister. She arrived at Number 10 to discover that there was no post-Brexit plan. She stacked her Cabinet with some Brexit-supporting ministers, whose loyalty to her made Judas Iscariot seem like a loveable rogue.

But watching Mrs May stoically stand in the House of Commons and argue her case yesterday was impressive. The vicar's daughter has grit. Which is more than can be said for the cowardly Cabinet ministers who sat through five hours of intensive debate, collectively backed the Prime Minister and, less than 12 hours later, resigned after wrestling with their so-called "consciences".

Dominic Rabb, the now-former Brexit Secretary, has as much spine as a jellyfish. This is the man who negotiated the Withdrawal Bill. This is the man who didn't realise how reliant Britain is on the Dover/Calais link for trade. Rabb is like the guy who finishes with his girlfriend by text.

Mrs May's deal isn't ideal. For this writer, it falls short of what I believe is best for the UK and that is to remain in the single market and the customs union as a full member. It also falls short of my second option, which was to get a Brexit model closer to that of Norway.

Yet, after two years of false starts and posturing, there has to be a dose of reality for all sides - Remainers and Brexiters alike. All deals require comprise and the options are narrowing - crash out with no deal, a second referendum, an extension of Article 50, or a general election.

Compromise is something that eventually Ian Paisley snr and Peter Robinson came to recognise in relation to Northern Ireland. Sammy Wilson, on the other hand, still seems to believe they smashed Sinn Fein. They didn't; they came to a truce first and then an accommodation. The Executive Press office has countless photos to prove it. If Mrs May walks from office, or is forced from it, the terms of any deal with the EU don't get any better. The Rees-Mogg types don't care about that.

They wouldn't, because they are cushioned by their wealth. Boris Johnson, who has ambition beyond his ability, has never convinced his own father, sister, or brother of the rationale for his antipathy to the EU. Even David Davis says Boris is good for headlines, not for policies.

Should Mrs May go, a more Right-wing Prime Minister will discover that Scotland will not be easily managed. Gloating Brexiters will boost support for Scottish independence. It is also likely that, unless Sinn Fein decided to forgive and forget a hard Brexit on the island of Ireland, devolution in Northern Ireland will be mothballed indefinitely. DUP MLAs, like others, will have to move on and get other jobs.

The DUP seem to think that the Tories will dump Mrs May and, with their "confidence and supply" agreement still in place, the DUP will keep the Conservative Party under a new leader in government over the next two years.

That would mark a high point for the DUP, but there would be no escaping responsibility for Tory cuts. And remember, too, that even the Brexit-supporting economists agree that the UK economy is likely to take a nose-dive in a "no deal" situation.

The industry bodies who represent the job-creators here in Northern Ireland, like NI Retail Consortium, the Freight and Transport Federation, Small Business Federation and Manufacturing NI, all have given a welcome to news of the potential breakthrough. Tourism and hospitality chiefs have followed suit. They can't be ignored.

The notion that the creation of a backstop - one which may never come into being - threatens the Union, the principle of consent, or even a sense of Britishness, is pure bunkum.

Two years ago, the then-Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, negotiated with the EU a clause that, in the event of a united Ireland, Northern Ireland would automatically re-enter the EU. That didn't cause any panic in Bangor, or east Belfast. No one felt any less British, or unionist. It threatened no one, because it can't take place until after the people of Northern Ireland decide to leave the UK.

The backstop is in the same category. The aim of the backstop is to allow daily lives of people, unionist, nationalist, or other, throughout Northern Ireland to be unaffected, to permit travel and trade, north/south and east/west, with the same ease as they currently enjoy. And that is exactly what Mrs Foster and the late Martin McGuinness asked for the people of Northern Ireland in August 2016.

There are those within our community clearly trying to agitate and escalate the current impasse for narrow political advantage - they are marginal, tin-pot egomaniacs, but no less dangerous for that. They are edging towards encouraging civil disobedience and incitement to resistance. It ill-behoves any political party, nationalist or unionist, to dally with, or give cover to, such individuals.

Tolstoy wrote: "If you would only look up at the heavens, instead of the ground beneath your own feet, you might all understand this and would no longer suppose that the sun shines for you, or for your country alone."

The time has arrived for compromise, common sense and the promotion of the common good. In the words of the Prime Minister, it's time to "get on with it".

Belfast Telegraph

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