DUP’s sacred cows the biggest obstacle to Brexit deal
Solution lies in shared distrust of London and pragmatically prioritising North
Boris Johnson quoted Ian Paisley as saying of Northern Ireland “that the people were British but the cattle were Irish”.
There are no unionist cows in Ireland. That seemed to be the logic of the comments made by Ian Paisley snr when he was first minister for Northern Ireland in 2007. In the midst of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in England he maintained he was prepared to engage in “worldwide lobbying to prove Northern Ireland’s meat products are safe”. People should know, said Paisley, that there was “clear blue water” between Northern Ireland and Britain and there was a distinction between Northern Irish and British beef.
There are no unionist pigs in Ireland either. During the same crisis, Paisley contacted the Japanese ambassador in London to assure him Northern Ireland’s meat products were safe, after a shipment of pork from Grampian foods in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, was rejected by Japan.
In Yorkshire last week, British prime minister Boris Johnson alluded to an earlier version of Paisley’s 2007 remarks when asked if he was pushing an all-Ireland regime for agrifoods following Brexit. During a meeting with Tony Blair in 2001 to advocate that livestock in the North should be exempt from the restrictions on movement in the UK Paisley reputedly said of Northern Ireland “that the people were British but the cattle were Irish”. According to Johnson, “ in that idea there is the germ of a solution to the question of frictionless cross-Border movement”.
It was actually the SDLP’s Bríd Rodgers who had made the running on this as minister for agriculture in 2001; against Downing Street’s advice and despite London threatening to overrule her, she banned the movement of British livestock into the North, and insisted on the North’s exemption from a European ban on UK livestock. Unionists and nationalists were thus singing from the same hymn sheet to argue for Northern Ireland’s distinctiveness and to try and safeguard its economic welfare. There is, surely, a lesson in that.
The idea of Northern cows being placed above the divide in Northern Ireland is not just something recent. In 1984 Paisley, along with John Hume and the Ulster Farmers’ Union, decried British government “treachery” when Northern Ireland farmers missed out on concessions won by the Republic’s minister for agriculture in relation to milk quotas. In 1990, several EU countries sought to ban British beef due to fears about BSE (mad cow) disease and Paisley joined the call by the Meat Exporters Association in Northern Ireland to have beef from the North accorded a separate status from British beef.
It makes sense to focus on cows as a starting point to finding a solution to the backstop crisis. But there are other cows – the sacred ones – that the DUP also needs to let go of, including the disingenuous chorus about the “constitutional integrity” of the UK and “blood red lines” in relation to its opposition to a special deal for Northern Ireland. The solution to the problem lies not in London but rather in Ireland.
DUP’s failed strategy
The DUP has loudly whined about the Irish Government insulting it as a result of megaphone diplomacy, talking over its head and wrapping the green flag around itself. The accusations do not stand up to scrutiny and expose the hypocrisy of the DUP’s failed Brexit strategy over the last three years. After the referendum in 2016 Arlene Foster dismissed the idea that Brexit could damage the peace process as “outrageous commentary” but maintained this summer that a backstop would run a “coach and horses” through the agreement.
In October 2016 the DUP contemptuously rejected an invitation to join a “civic forum” in Dublin convened by the Government to discuss the Brexit referendum fallout and insisted the issues at stake were internal British concerns. Foster rubbished the forum as a grandstanding exercise for “Remoaners” and insisted “I have better things to do with my time” and that the DUP “will do what is best for Northern Ireland” in any EU negotiations.
But Foster and the DUP have been doing precious little with their time and have not remotely lived up to the promise of working or negotiating for the welfare of Northern Ireland. In relation to the green flag accusation, the Government has consistently downplayed the need for a border poll any time soon, suggesting it would be premature, provocative and unhelpful.
A solution to the crisis needs to lie in a shared distrust of London and a pragmatism that prioritises the welfare of the North. It would be worthwhile to look more closely at ideas such as that put forward by former UUP leader Reg Empey, who suggested a new north-south ministerial body to monitor and regulate trade on the island; what Empey referred to as “an Irish solution to an Irish problem”. And therein lies the need for the DUP to slaughter its ultimate sacred cow; this is indeed an Irish problem, as Irish as the cows in Ulster.