Brexit analysis: Tory benches feel withering effect of DUP resolve
Exchange in parliament a stark reminder to Conservative party of DUP intransigence
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the Democratic Unionist Party would not tolerate anything that separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. Photograph: Michael McHugh/PA
“He needs to understand that as far as we are concerned as the Democratic Unionist Party we will not tolerate anything that separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of customs or single market as we leave the European Union. We’ve been clear about that from Day One! It’s why we had the debacle in December. Let’s not repeat that mistake,” he said.
The debacle he was referring to was Theresa May’s trip to Brussels on Monday, December 4th, last year, when she had to rush home without agreeing to a backstop after Arlene Foster called to object. The incident reinforced the DUP’s image at Westminster as brutally tough negotiators, a reputation summed up by the endlessly repeated quote from a party figure during the confidence-and-supply negotiations with May: “This is a battle of who blinks first, and we’ve cut off our eyelids”.
The DUP’s missing eyelids didn’t stop May from making a commitment to a backstop later the same week without their approval. Sammy Wilson acknowledged as much on Tuesday when he said the backstop was “foolishly agreed last December”.
Although Raab looked a little shaken after Dodds’s intervention, he offered no commitments about the scope of the backstop beyond the government’s established position that there should be no customs border in the Irish Sea.
As British and EU officials remain in their week-long negotiating “tunnel” in Brussels, Britain has accepted that the backstop will mean that Northern Ireland would remain aligned with the EU for the regulation of goods. The EU’s “de-dramatised” proposal would expand on existing checks on animals entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
Thick red line
Goods would be regulated in the market as they are now under the EU’s market surveillance regime, which is administered by national and local agencies and is mostly unobtrusive and subject to the principle of proportionality. The DUP has thickened its red line in recent days to include a rejection of such a regime, arguing that regulation in Northern Ireland could diverge from the rest of the UK over time.
Britain’s demand that the backstop should be time-limited is unacceptable to the EU, which is also sceptical about the idea of the whole of the UK remaining in a temporary customs union.
Negotiators on both sides believe that the key to resolving these disagreements lies in the relationship between the legally binding text of the withdrawal agreement and the non-binding political declaration about the future relationship. Each side wants its priorities to be enshrined in the withdrawal agreement but both acknowledge the role of the political declaration in providing a context for the legal text that could make it more politically palatable.