For a short while there, it looked seductively like the compromise that we have all been waiting for. From denying the possibility of any post-Brexit divergence within the United Kingdom, the DUP moved last week to endorse the proposal of a regulatory border down the Irish Sea for “all goods including agrifood”. The toxic backstop jettisoned in favour of an all-island regulatory zone. In even proffering the concept of an island of Ireland solution, the DUP looked to be attempting an athletic about-turn.
If they wished, they could justify it in terms of their previous (and periodically disremembered) demand for Northern Ireland-specific arrangements, now writ large in bold bright colours. But what has been curious is that this has barely been attempted. Instead the DUP leadership has moved rapidly towards attributing blame, and far from the cautious, harmonious timbre normally associated with selling a compromise.
Their statements issued on Thursday evening in response to comments made by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste are revealing. In them we see something rather different to an effort to keep unionists on board a compromise. Instead there is a bizarre readiness for defeat, accompanied by a clear narrative of culpability and bad faith. “The Irish Government’s majoritarian desire to ride roughshod over unionism,” Arlene Foster declared, “ . . . is paving the road to a no-deal exit.” Nigel Dodds also accused the Irish Government of derailing any prospect of a deal. Moreover, the DUP continues to insist that the proposals would see Northern Ireland leave the single market along with the rest of the UK, and to enjoy frictionless trade with Britain. How could it be so sanguine?
Perhaps it is worth a closer look at the proposals. It is true that the all-island regulatory zone is set out in some detail in the UK government’s explanatory note. But all this is as nought when read in the light of just 11 words in that same document: “If consent is withheld, the arrangements will not enter into force.”
According to this, “Before the end of the transition period” the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive would be given “an opportunity for democratic consent to these arrangements”. Perhaps the DUP are sure that the compromise over an all-island regulatory zone is a gesture worth making because they are confident that it will never come into play. Rather than a being a quadrennial affair, the DUP may be convinced that any such vote would only need to be taken once: at the end of 2020. And because the default would be UK rules, the party could veto any plan for Northern Ireland alignment with the EU. The DUP – perhaps too willingly – has taken “democratic consent” of the Assembly and Executive to mean “parallel consent”. They thus believe – or can at least pretend to assume – that the power of veto remains in their grasp despite suggestions from Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay that there was some flexibility around consent.
But maybe all of this is moot. Perhaps the best explanation of the proposals and the behaviour around them is the simplest and unfortunately the most cynical. That is: their focus is not on negotiations but on elections. As such the impression of offering a deal is much more valuable than the viability and quality of the proposals, or the time and scope for negotiation. The quick slide from “reasonable offer” into blame game is quite telling.
No wonder the DUP and Johnson’s administration are happy bedfellows, despite the prime minister’s barely skin-deep unionism. They are of a kind. It is power, not responsibility, the DUP likes to carry. And they will use that power for self-interest rather than for the common good. Indeed, this is seen in their much greater readiness to resort to accusation rather than ever to engage with detail on anything to do with the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
Finger of blame
There is a near-relish in their enthusiasm at the prospect of the Irish Government being “responsible” for a no-deal and a hard border that reminds me of the story of King Solomon. When two women both laid claim to one child, Solomon threatened to divide the infant in two. It was the real mother who pleaded for the child to be spared, even if it meant her losing him to the other woman.
What Northern Ireland needs now more than ever is political accountability
The DUP’s response to the inadequacy of their arguments is to point the finger of blame at the grieving party on the other side as they anticipate the sword falling upon Northern Ireland. These are not actions which reflect a love of country; they are the dangerous delusions of those who think they will never be held to account.
But what Northern Ireland needs now more than ever is political accountability. Withdrawal from the EU gives rise to complex, technical challenges. Cross-community consent should come through enhancing the quality of devolved governance to meet these challenges, not through the use of minority veto. Regulatory alignment is not a matter of constitutional significance, but it does require proper legislative scrutiny and procedure.
The 1998 agreement determined that ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive should follow the seven principles of public life set out by the UK’s Committee on Standards in Public Life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Instead of the fabled “principle of consent”, it is adherence to these principles in Belfast, London and Dublin that will determine the quality of Northern Ireland’s future after Brexit.
Dr Katy Hayward is a senior fellow in the UK in a Changing Europe initiative