DUP MPs and not Arlene Foster drive party’s Brexit agenda

Ardent Brexiteers Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson leading the anti-EU charge

Arlene Foster, Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson did not look a happy trio of DUP MPs when they appeared in front of the cameras on Wednesday evening after Theresa May announced she planned to press ahead with the Brexit deal.

Of the three, Dodds, the North Belfast representative, who is deputy leader and leader of the party’s nine other MPs in the House of Commons, and East Antrim representative Wilson, who is the party’s Brexit spokesman, are the most ideologically Eurosceptic.

Ahead of the Brexit referendum in 2016 Foster never gave any sense that she was emotionally or ideologically committed to Britain and Northern Ireland quitting the European Union.

The impression she offered was that she would go along with the wishes of the party but she was never a driving force or a significant campaigner for Brexit.


In fact, many sources, including some unionist and DUP sources, have contended that the party supported Brexit in the expectation that the Remain side would triumph. In such a scenario the DUP could have the best of both worlds – it could present itself as arch unionists while safe in the knowledge that after the referendum it would be back to the status quo.

It didn’t work out like that, of course.

On the other hand Nigel Dodds, who has been leading the DUP attack ably assisted by Wilson, is a committed Brexiteer. A Cambridge graduate, for many years he was bag carrier in Brussels and Strasbourg for the party's then MEP, Ian Paisley, and has no love for either place, according to those who know him well.

He is married to Diane Dodds, now the DUP MEP, and they are the classic Brexiteer couple – Diane Dodds looking forward to the day when the implementation of Brexit will put her out of a job.

There is an element of Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson playing the soft cop, hard cop routine in relation to Brexit, in so far as any DUP MP is capable of putting on a moderate front.

Yet, of the two, Dodds appears the more measured, while Wilson is the MP for the headline-grabbing quote and belligerent statement, lashing out at the likes of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and other Irish Ministers and hyping up the putative threat to the union. On one occasion he somehow managed to bring the Troubles into the debate, declaring about the so-called border down the Irish Sea, "People in Northern Ireland died to remain part the United Kingdom and not be forced out by terrorists."

Somewhat gentler tones come from the DUP MP for Lagan Valley Jeffrey Donaldson, who also speaks on Brexit from time to time, his voice perhaps heard more often on RTÉ and the BBC in Britain than in Northern Ireland.

Probably the most hardline DUP Brexiteer is North Antrim MP Ian Paisley junior. But he has been silenced by party headquarters due to his indiscretions over taking family holidays to Sri Lanka paid for by the Sri Lankan government.

His suspension from the party over the Sri Lankan business ends next Tuesday. Such is his passion for Brexit that he must be chomping at the bit to tear into the debate. Unusually for Paisley he has remained quiet, suggesting a wish to be re-embraced in the bosom of the DUP. It will be interesting to see if the party hierarchy will ease the reins and allow him vent his passionate support for Brexit when he is readmitted.

What is clear amid all the current turmoil is the DUP policy on Brexit is driven by its senior MPs and not by Arlene Foster and her Assembly members back in Northern Ireland.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times