The apparent attempt by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster to undermine the Belfast Agreement in pursuit of a hardline strategy on Brexit is ill-considered and dangerous. It would appear that the DUP is actively pursuing a policy designed to ensure the restoration of the hardest possible border on the island regardless of the consequences for living standards of the people of Northern Ireland or, more importantly, the future of peace.
To put the Belfast Agreement in jeopardy in such an irresponsible manner is a poor reflection on Foster’s leadership. She does have genuine difficulties to contend with, including rebellious party MPs in the House of Commons and the ongoing cash for ash inquiry, but calling the Agreement into question raises doubts about her judgment. The 1998 Agreement was the culmination of more than a decade of intensive negotiations between the Irish and British governments and a range of political parties and movements. Whatever its limitations it has delivered peace, if not political stability, for the past 20 years.
Foster compounded her negative attitude to the Agreement by praising Boris Johnson's 'belief' and 'spirit'
In an immediate response to Foster, Tánaiste Simon Coveney was right to say the Government would protect and defend the Agreement. By throwing doubt on the future of the deal the DUP leader is going down a dangerous road with no clear destination. She is entitled to pursue the political objective of ensuring that Northern Ireland is not treated differently to the rest of the United Kingdom but calling the Belfast Agreement into question will do nothing to foster that aim and may even damage it.
British prime minister Theresa May has given a number of firm public commitments to maintain the integrity of the Agreement regardless of what form Brexit takes and it is to be hoped that Foster's intervention will not shake that resolve.
Foster compounded her negative attitude to the Agreement by praising Boris Johnson’s “belief” and “spirit”, adding that she would be happy to work with him as prime minister. This will hardly have endeared her to May given the direct challenge that Johnson has thrown down to the prime minister and her entire Brexit strategy. Hopefully it will encourage May to pursue a workable deal with the EU encompassing a political declaration about a future trade agreement as well as a meaningful backstop.
While the tone of the debate at the Tory party conference this week highlighted the obstacles to a reasonable compromise, it also pointed up the lack of any coherent alternative to May’s leadership. Her latest move on the backstop indicates that the issue may not be as intractable as it seems, particularly if there is an agreement on a future trading relationship. Foster’s support for Johnson gives May an incentive to work around the DUP and engage seriously with the EU.