Newton Emerson: DUP opposition to Brexit forum purely parochial

Foremost unionist party objects to inclusion of Ulster Unionists in forum

When DUP leader Arlene Foster shot down Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s proposal for a forum three weeks ago, her concerns were presumed to be the normal unionist contempt for anything all-Ireland, plus paradoxical indignation at Kenny forgetting to run the idea past her first. Liam McBurney/PA

When DUP leader Arlene Foster shot down Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s proposal for a forum three weeks ago, her concerns were presumed to be the normal unionist contempt for anything all-Ireland, plus paradoxical indignation at Kenny forgetting to run the idea past her first. Liam McBurney/PA

 

The DUP’s true objection to an all-Ireland forum has been revealed and it is so parochial it could barely squeeze a drip from a parish pump.

When DUP leader Arlene Foster shot down Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s proposal for a forum three weeks ago, her concerns were presumed to be the normal unionist contempt for anything all-Ireland, plus paradoxical indignation at Kenny forgetting to run the idea past her first.

But none of this bothered the DUP, according to an interview with its east Belfast MP Gavin Robinson in last Saturday’s News Letter, since confirmed by other party sources.

Robinson spoke of the DUP’s “absolute understanding” that there must be “cross-Border discussion” and even proposed that Dublin could be Northern Ireland’s “voice” in Brussels.

Where the Taoiseach had crossed the line was in suggesting that all the main Stormont parties could attend the forum, rather than just the two executive parties – Sinn Féin and the DUP.

It would be “wrong for the Irish Government to facilitate a role for parties which have excluded themselves from government in Northern Ireland”, Robinson said. “It’s not for Enda Kenny to give them a role.”

The role currently occupied by those parties – the UUP, SDLP and Alliance – is Stormont’s first opposition of the modern era, created three months ago. This was big news in Northern Ireland before the world fell apart and evidently it still is big news inside the DUP, given that it finds opposition rivalry more important than cross-Border discussion.

Games vs crisis

The tiny scale of that rivalry is laughable. Only the UUP competes with the DUP for votes and, apart from a brief blip last year, it has been losing ground for decades. Even if both parties’ fortunes were reversed, Stormont’s new opposition rules do not make leaving the executive compulsory. So the DUP humiliated the Taoiseach, who it wants to be the North’s ambassador to Europe, because he might have lent some obscure credence to one fading rival that cannot conceivably put it out of office. Of course, the DUP is not alone in playing petty games amid a constitutional crisis. Brexit is only happening because former British prime minister David Cameron risked the cohesion of the UK to paper over a crack in the Conservative Party.

Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin have spent the past fortnight musing on a Border poll for no better reason than to steal a march on Sinn Féin and each other.

The DUP is in regional government so perhaps its pettiness is less out of proportion. Yet that is not how it should seem to Foster’s party, which regards Northern Ireland as a country.

Compare the perceived threats to the union with the DUP’s focus on Stormont trivia and it is clear that it simply does not think there is a crisis.

Nationalists have accused the DUP of wanting a hard border or seeking to undermine the peace process but the party has always stated it does not want the former and has just secured a triumph for the latter, through last December’s Fresh Start agreement. Why would it jeopardise this, especially with new leader Foster still finding her feet?

The DUP may have less parochial hope of holding the balance of power in Westminster, where it has eight MPs against a fragile Tory working majority of 16. However, its most practical prospect for Westminster influence was to help Cameron cling on after a Remain victory while his Eurosceptics rebelled. So why join the rebels?

When the DUP took its pro-Brexit position, it will have known this reflected the majority of unionist opinion but that would not have justified knowingly leading unionism over a cliff. It must also be remembered few expected Leave to win, so the DUP set itself up to lose just to commune with its base on an apparently arcane question, three years before the next scheduled election – an eternity in political terms.

Value of Euroscepticism

The UUP was pro-Remain, despite a few internal rumbles. Ensuring it is not in any way recognised for this seems to be more of a priority for the DUP today than sorting out the Brexit mess, in part because it does not believe Brexit will cause a mess.

We must confront the awful possibility DUP Euroscepticism is a position of worthy principle, sincerely held. Most people in the party genuinely believe cross-Border and single-market issues will be solved, the UK will thrive, Scottish nationalism will abate and everything will be fine. They are also completely indifferent to how much this is antagonising northern nationalists.

A further annoyance for nationalists as they work to solve Brexit is any progress they make will just confirm the DUP’s conviction that really there is no problem.

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