DUP perceives Brexit deal as threat to the union – before seeing text

‘In Northern Ireland it can be difficult for many unionists to heed political and business calls for cool heads’

The bottom line from the unseen agreement, said Sammy Wilson, was that Northern Ireland was going to be treated differently than the rest of the United Kingdom. Above, speaking  at the ‘Leave Means Rally’  in Bournemouth, England, last month. Photograph:  Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The bottom line from the unseen agreement, said Sammy Wilson, was that Northern Ireland was going to be treated differently than the rest of the United Kingdom. Above, speaking at the ‘Leave Means Rally’ in Bournemouth, England, last month. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

 

The initial DUP response to the proposed Brexit deal could be characterised as a play on a famous Bill Clinton election slogan, “It’s the union, stupid”.

At around noon on Wednesday, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin was telling reporters at Queen’s University of his dismay that people such as the DUP’s Sammy Wilson was coming out and condemning the proposed UK-EU Brexit deal before he had even seen the text of the agreement.

Earlier Martin told an Irish Association conference that unionism was at its “strongest and has the most impact when it shows a self-confidence in itself and tries not to find a constitutional significance in every issue”.

Right now such pronunciations are gaining no traction with the DUP because the whole party focus is on the real or imagined constitutional impact of the deal on Northern Ireland’s union with Britain.

Which is what East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson was averring when he spoke a short time later on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme. He still hadn’t seen the text but regardless he was opposed to it.

The bottom line from the unseen agreement, said Wilson, was that Northern Ireland was going to be treated differently than the rest of the United Kingdom and would be tied to the EU as long as the EU so demanded, “and that can’t be good in terms of constitutional arrangements or our economic well-being”.

On Tuesday, the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood had a good line when he also appealed to unionists to view the proposals rationally. He counselled a calm response if there had to be some regulatory checks of goods bound for Northern Ireland from Britain.

“A few cows being checked coming into Larne does not undermine the union,” he asserted.

Equally, over recent months many businesspeople and quite a number from the farming and agri-food sector have been arguing that a backstop deal that might involve some regulatory checks of goods was many times better than a no-deal Brexit.

Ibec in the South and the Confederation of British Industry in the North had warned that no deal “would immediately undermine the ability of many companies to trade and would lead to significant job losses”.

But in Northern Ireland it can be difficult for many unionists to heed political and business calls for cool heads when the likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg were claiming, as Johnson did, that “for the first time since partition, Dublin – under these proposals – would have more say in some aspects of the government of Northern Ireland than London”.

And Rees-Mogg parroting, “It is very hard to see any reason why the cabinet should support Northern Ireland being ruled from Dublin.”

Politicians such as the Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry described these comments as “incredibly incendiary” and “irresponsible”.

Still, that didn’t prevent loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson on BBC being happy to stand over his article on the Unionist Voice website last month that “an imposed backstop would see a unionist reaction that would dwarf Drumcree or the flag protests”.

Right now the sense is that the DUP is prepared to play up the alleged threat to the union rather than pay attention to the moderate voices urging calm and rational appraisal of what Theresa May has negotiated with the EU.

Sammy Wilson and the DUP appear motivated to ignore or resist the arguments that what is on offer does not undermine the union. “The great, the good and the chattering classes will be talking just as they did coming up to the referendum [about] how horrendous this will be for the country if this deal is voted down,” said Wilson dismissively.

He hinted that the DUP would be prepared to bring down the Conservative government over the issue. An already beleaguered Theresa May did not have the “parliamentary arithmetic” to get the agreement through the divided House of Commons, Wilson was sure.

Around teatime on Wednesday DUP leader Arlene Foster said the confidence-and-supply agreement to prop up the Tory government remained in place – at least until she had a clear sight and assessment of the draft deal.

But Foster did not believe she could support that agreement, so far as she understood it before a briefing with the British prime minister, “because it breaches the red line in terms of having differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom”.

Foster did not definitively say she would attempt to bring down May’s government and take the risk of a Jeremy Corbyn-led administration. But if the prime minister held to a position where there were differences between Britain and Northern Ireland “then there will be consequences”.

“We could not, as unionists, support a deal that broke up the United Kingdom,” added Foster, notwithstanding arguments from many quarters that there is no such threat from the Brexit deal.

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