The contentious backstop solution to avoid a hard Irish border after Brexit is pushing Northern Ireland towards "extreme unionism", an Ulster Unionist politician has warned.
Steve Aiken, a UUP MLA for South Antrim, told a conference on Brexit in Galway that he believed many members the rival Democratic Unionist Party were not actually unionists but "Ulster nationalists" or "ultras" who want a hard border after Brexit to cement divisions in Ireland. He claimed there was a "massive sort of schism" within the DUP based around ideology.
“There are people within the DUP who seriously believe a hard Brexit is what they want because that would be able to deliver them a hard border, and if it was a hard border, it would reinforce the divisions in Ireland, and for them, that would be electorally successful going into the future,” he said.
He was addressing a conference organised by the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, NUI Galway and the Mitchell Institute at Queen's University Belfast.
Mr Aiken called for the backstop – the insurance policy in the proposed EU-UK divorce deal to avoid a hard border – to be changed, saying it would undermine the principle of consent in the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
“The backstop is the fast-track pushing us more and more towards this extreme unionism,” he said.
He expressed concern that if Anglo-Irish relations – damaged by Brexit negotiations – were not restored, “we are heading for a world of hurt”.
RTÉ's Europe editor, Tony Connelly, told the conference the backstop was "there to limit the damage" to the Belfast Agreement, which could be "very dangerously undermined" by Brexit.
He warned of a “very acrimonious landscape” with the EU if there was no deal.
“If you think it is difficult at the moment, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” he said.
Discussing the political extremes gripping the debate, Anna Bailey, a pro-Brexit political scientist, said an "obvious compromise" involving the UK joining countries such as Norway in the Economic Economic Area and staying in the EU single market "has been rejected by just about everyone".
“A soft Brexit or remaining in the single market would pacify a lot of people,” she said.
She said, whether people agreed or not, the backstop was “almost universally perceived by Brexiteers as a trap” to keep the UK in the EU.
Under the bus
Fine Gael MEP Máiread McGuinness told the conference that the EU might agree to an article 50 extension, delaying Brexit, but only to bring in more time to pass legislation supporting the proposed withdrawal agreement.
“An extension – just because we can’t sort it out now – won’t sort it at the end of the extension so we have to be very certain that there is movement,” she said.
Ulster University professor of social policy Deirdre Heenan said there was a "growing realisation" that a deal would be agreed and Theresa May would find support for her deal over the objections of the DUP, which props up her minority government, or pro-Brexit Tories in the European Research Group.
"Will Mrs May throw the DUP or the ERG under the bus? Yes, I think she will." NUI Galway professor of economics Alan Ahearne, a ministerial adviser after the 2008 financial crisis, said that nobody was predicting a similar crash after Brexit but that for certain sectors – namely, agrifood, which is "disproportionately exposed to the UK" – a hard Brexit "could be disastrous and devastating".