DUP: blind to the risks of Brexit
Special status for Northern Ireland could give it a huge economic advantage over the rest of the UK
DUP leader Arlene Foster and other senior party figures have in the past week struck a note of realism on the prospect of restoring the Executive, if not on Brexit and its dangers. Photograph: Andrew Paton/Reuters
The annual conference of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) last weekend contained a glimmer of hope that the powersharing institutions in Northern Ireland just might be restored at some stage in the new year. That was the positive news, but on the negative side there was little evidence that the DUP has yet come to terms with the reality of what a hard Brexit will mean for all the people on the island, and particularly for those living in the North.
A welcome air of realism about the restoration of the Executive was struck by the party’s deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, who told delegates that if a deal is to be done with Sinn Féin, it “inevitably means taking difficult decisions”.That sensible note reflected the general mood music at the conference, where an obvious effort was made by the party leadership to, at the very least, not throw up further obstacles in the way of a deal with Sinn Féin.
It was noticeable that there was no concerted attempt to indulge in the kind of Sinn Féin-bashing which would have delighted delegates. Naturally, there were a few jibes at their former coalition partners but nothing designed to make matters worse than they already are.The speech by Dodds indicates that the leadership is prepared to sell a difficult message to the membership as long as some compromises are forthcoming from the other side. Time will tell whether there is any prospect of that.
On Brexit, however, there was no evidence that the DUP is willing to take on board the concerns of the majority of people in Northern Ireland who voted to remain in the EU, or to face up to the reality of what leaving the EU single market and customs union will actually mean.Surely by this stage senior people in the DUP realise that a hard Brexit will have a damaging impact on all the people of the North, including many of their own supporters in the farming community and beyond it.
It is understandable from the party’s perspective that it would resist any attempt to relocate the Border to the middle of the Irish Sea. Such a move could be perceived as undermining the North’s position as part of the United Kingdom and would go against everything the DUP stands for.It is also arguable that a border in the Irish Sea would have a damaging impact on the Northern economy as the bulk of its trade goes to the rest of the UK and not to the EU.
But special status for Northern Ireland could give it a huge economic advantage over the rest of the UK, and should be embraced. Unfortunately, the penny does not appear to have dropped that the party’s commitment to leaving the customs union and the single market would inevitably result in a hard Border across the island, with all the negative consequences that this would entail.A more nuanced approach is essential.