Deep in the heart of political unionism lies a great fear of betrayal by London

Dublin is taking heart at the level of alarm exhibited by the DUP at the Conservative Party conference

May promises under no circumstances will there be a border down the Irish Sea, and no diminishing of the constitutional status of the North within the UK. So say all of us, says Dublin

May promises under no circumstances will there be a border down the Irish Sea, and no diminishing of the constitutional status of the North within the UK. So say all of us, says Dublin

 

The view in Government circles in Dublin is more or less consistent – the British are preparing to make compromises on the border backstop in order to secure a deal on the withdrawal treaty in the coming weeks.

Senior Government sources cite the British prime minister’s stated willingness to seek a deal even at her party conference. They cautiously reveal high level contacts with British ministers who have been pointing in this direction for weeks.

But most telling of all, say some sources, is the level of alarm exhibited by the DUP this week at the Conservative Party conference.

Clearly unwilling to take Theresa May’s assurances and reassurances at face value, the DUP has been warning her that it will bring down her government, vote against a deal on Brexit if it violates its “blood red” red lines, and has been cosying up to May’s greatest rival Boris Johnson.

This behaviour has encouraged many in Dublin who see it as evidence that May is readying concessions on the backstop to enable a breakthrough in the deadlocked negotiations.

Dublin has been observing Ulster unionism more closely and for a lot longer than London has. It understands that deep, deep in the heart of political unionism lies a great fear of something – something worse than the threatened advances of Dublin’s greenery, worse even than the infernal devices of popery: it is the fear of betrayal by London.

That is what the DUP means when it says that unionism has seen off worse threats than May. But it does not seem to say it with any great confidence. The fear of the great betrayal by those to whom it has pledged it loyalty is the unspoken terror: unspoken but keenly felt.

Promises

May promises under no circumstances will there be a border down the Irish Sea, and no diminishing of the constitutional status of the North within the UK. So say all of us, says Dublin. And us too, says the European Commission, bent on “de-dramatizing” the backstop question.

Part of the de-dramatising is the downplaying of any regulatory checks on goods that might become necessary between the North and Britain to maintain the twin objectives of an open border and the UK’s right to diverge from European regulatory standards.

There are already checks on animals, they point out. Checks do not a border make, they say. Any new checks, suggest the British, would have to be approved by Stormont. Just because there’s checks doesn’t mean the North is different to the UK, they say. The DUP smells betrayal.

Can the checks be there and not be considered a border? Can the North be different yet the same?

To the plain-spoken yeomanry of the DUP the Jesuitical hairsplitting of the Brexit negotiations is an inherently suspicious activity.

Rejecting the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Eucharist, Martin Luther could not bring himself to completely abandon the idea of the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus, as John Calvin had done. So he instead came up with the doctrine of consubstantiation – by which it is held that the consecrated host and wine is both the body and blood of Christ and bread and wine. Two things at once.

Calvinists

The EU is seeking the full Roman Catholic monty – the transubstantiation option – that the North is different from the UK. The DUP and their hard Brexiteer allies are Calvinists (literally and metaphorically in many cases). It’s bread and wine, no more.

May – the daughter of a Church of England vicar – is seeking the consubstantiation option: that at the same time the North should be both different from the UK and the same as the UK.

This may be a neat political and theological shimmy: though history says there is always the risk of a 30-year war and the death of millions. Though it might not come to that.