The DUP, facing a unionist backlash, must be wishing for soft Brexit

Sense of unionist betrayal at hands of British prime minister Boris Johnson is palpable

The DUP is under the cosh over the EU-UK government deal designed to bring some clarity to how the Irish Sea border will work – a proposal anathema to most unionists.

UK cabinet minister Michael Gove spent time in the House of Commons on Wednesday seeking to reassure unionists that the new east-west border created as a result of Brexit was not a threat to the union of Britain and Northern Ireland.

A precis of the general unionist reaction was in line with what DUP MP Sammy Wilson said on Tuesday in Westminster: "I am 100 per cent British and I want to remain 100 per cent British, and the reason why I have taken a stance against the withdrawal agreement ... is because it diminishes my Britishness."

It wasn't surprising that the response to Wilson and the DUP – the only one of the North's five main parties to campaign for Brexit – was of the "I told you so" variety, or as former leader Ian Paisley snr was wont to say when in biblical mode, you reap what you sow.

DUP MPs such as Wilson and Ian Paisley jnr are genuine in their ideological wish to see a strong Brexit. But there was a real sense before and after the EU exit referendum in 2016 that many or possibly most others at senior DUP level were acting expediently in taking a Leave position.

The argument ran that the DUP could adopt a John Bull hard pro-union Brexit stance safe in the expectation that the Remain side would win. That would strengthen its electoral position, particularly as its rival Ulster Unionist Party was for Remain (although quite a few Ulster Unionists voted to quit the EU).

That didn’t work out.

Another reason for the unionist constitutional anxiety and anger at the DUP was that it had placed trust in UK prime minister Boris Johnson that he would be a better bet than his predecessor Theresa May in safeguarding the union.

The DUP had struck a £1.5 billion confidence-and-supply agreement to keep May’s government in power. But it jettisoned her in favour of Johnson because of opposition to May’s Brexit backstop, which would have involved some checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland from Britain.

“Junk the backstop,” Johnson declared at the DUP annual conference in November 2018, to the whooping delight of hundreds of delegates – although it was also noted that there were some present who were wary of him.

Junk the DUP

Johnson did just that when he gained power but when he achieved a strong majority in the House of Commons he also junked the DUP because he no longer needed it.

He got rid of the backstop but replaced it with the Northern Ireland protocol – and not only that but this week Downing Street reneged on amendments to that protocol designed to mitigate against the creation of an Irish Sea border.

The point here is that – under EU and Irish pressure, and probably mindful of US president-elect Joe Biden's support for the Belfast Agreement – Johnson and the UK government acted to ensure that North-South trade would be seamless but that east-west trade would not.

An editorial in the unionist Belfast News Letter on Wednesday offered a modern version of the 19th-century prime minister Lord Palmerston’s famous dictum about British governments having perpetual interests rather than perpetual allies.

"There is nothing remotely surprising about Boris Johnson agreeing to withdraw aspects of the Internal Market Bill to protect Northern Ireland," the editorial lamented. "The prime minister will always do what is right for him personally, then for his party, then for England. "

And the leader writer added: “He showed pure cynicism when he came to Northern Ireland to denounce Theresa May’s Border backstop … Within months he had the premiership he had spent a lifetime coveting, and within weeks of achieving that goal he was cutting the province adrift.”

The sense of betrayal in those words was palpable.

Former Ulster Unionist Party leader Reg Empey also launched a piercing attack on the DUP and its leader, Arlene Foster.

He reminded the First Minister how, in 2018, she said the "red line" that there could be no Brexit deal that would divide Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom was a "blood red" line.

“The DUP’s ‘blood red line’ has been washed away,” accused Empey.

In the Assembly on Tuesday only two unionists, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister and Jim Wells, a unionist MLA who has lost the DUP whip, opposed a motion that they said effectively put in place the legal structure for the Northern Ireland protocol.

Witheringly Allister said, “This is a shameful day for our legislative Assembly. We are being asked to surrender the right to legislate according to our own needs and to have that right suborned to the diktat of EU regulations and directives. Strip away all the fancy words, and that is what this statutory instrument is about.”

Gove’s line

In the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon Michael Gove held to the new agreement with the EU while trying to assure the many sceptical unionists that the UK government was adamantly for the union.

The deal meant the protocol would be implemented in a “pragmatic and proportionate” way, said Gove. As well as taking account of the Belfast Agreement “in all of its dimensions”, he added, it protected the interests of the EU single market “but more importantly the territorial and constitutional integrity of the whole United Kingdom”.

And while he further emphasised that the deal “put beyond doubt the primacy of the sovereignty of this place as we leave the EU”, many unionists remain worried and annoyed, and much of that displeasure is pointed at the DUP.

The DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson was sent out yesterday to defend his party, which he did in his usual emollient manner.

Nonetheless, the pressure continues on the party, much of it emanating from unionism. What the DUP earnestly must hope for now is a soft Brexit.

This deal is a subplot to the bigger story of whether Boris Johnson, Ursula von der Leyen and the other EU and UK negotiators can thrash out an overarching trade agreement in the coming short period before the January 1st deadline.

Such a deal partly could rescue the DUP from the Leave mess it got itself into.