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Fintan O’Toole: In humiliating May, DUP killed the thing it loves

The DUP’s brinkmanship and manoeuvring have exposed Britain’s powerlessness

It has never seemed more apt that perhaps the greatest work of English literature, William Shakespeare's King Lear, is about the consequences of a capricious loss of authority. Lear gives up his kingdom for no good reason and everything falls horribly apart. In his madness and despair he utters the most scathing lines every written about political power: "Thou hast seen a farmer's dog bark at a beggar? . . . There thou mightst behold the great image of authority."

The great image of British authority this week was Theresa May travelling to Brussels on Monday essentially as a beggar, a suppliant desperately in need of the European declaration of "sufficient progress" in the Brexit talks – and the bark of Arlene Foster peremptorily ordering the British prime minister to take back the promises she had made.

Theresa May was experiencing the double Irish, capitulating first to the Irish Government and then uncapitulating on the orders of a very different Irish force, the Democratic Unionist Party. And then, in the early hours of Friday morning, there was a further twist – both May and the DUP essentially signing up to what had been agreed on Monday. It was a startling display of British powerlessness: there can hardly be a more unfortunate military manoeuvre than the retreat from a retreat.

But the image of cracked authority that will linger longest was Foster sweeping down the Stormont staircase on Monday afternoon, like the star of a Busby Berkeley musical flanked by her all-male chorus line, to deliver her royal command: Northern Ireland must leave the European Union on exactly the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom.


It was an apparent moment of historic triumph: no Irish party leader had seemed to hold this much sway over a British prime minister since Charles Stewart Parnell and William Gladstone. But this historical parallel should have given the DUP pause. It is one thing for an Irish nationalist to lord it over the Brits, quite another for a unionist and "British" party to do so.

For Foster's historic triumph was also a historic mistake. Each man, wrote Oscar Wilde, kills the thing he loves. The DUP on Monday helped to kill the thing it purports to love: the power and prestige of Britain.

Exhilaration and shock are powerful emotions, especially in combination. They provoked a response that was, for four thrilling days, highly satisfying for the DUP

It is easy to understand how exhilarating that moment must have been for the DUP in general and for Foster in particular. A year ago this month she was in very deep trouble over the cash-for-ash scandal, facing demands to stand aside. It seemed possible that her political career might come to an ignominious end.

Crucial deal

She cannot have dreamt then that she would find herself at the centre of European affairs, being able to call the British prime minister out of a meeting in which she was about to make a crucial deal and send her back in to say, in effect, “Mrs Foster says I’m not allowed to play with you any more.”

The utterly unexpected result of the UK general election in June, in which the DUP soared and the Tories plummeted, was a vertiginous spin of the wheel of political fortune that had left her at an apparent summit of power.

It is also easy to understand why the DUP felt it had to issue its diktat on Monday. It was right to see May’s agreement to guarantee “full alignment” between the two parts of Ireland after Brexit as a defeat.

However technocratic the language, the agreement meant that Northern Ireland would, in practice, have to mirror both the customs union and the single market. That would mean that there were only two possible conclusions to the Brexit process, both of them unpalatable to the DUP. Either there would be a border in the Irish Sea or the UK as a whole would in effect stay in the customs union and the single market. The DUP’s shock was almost certainly genuine.

Exhilaration and shock are powerful emotions, especially in combination. They provoked a response that was, for four thrilling days, highly satisfying for the DUP but, in the longer term, likely to prove disastrous.

The party is anchored in two, closely related things: the preservation of the union and a sense of “Britishness” as a strong and stable identity. The union is the DUP’s external orientation, Britishness its internal tribal marker.

Barking at the beggar

If it were able to stand back and coolly appraise what it did on Monday, it would have to conclude that both of these things have been severely and perhaps permanently damaged. For both of them, like all political constructs, depend on an image of authority rather grander than the farmer’s dog barking at the beggar.

The union is not a God-given reality: it is a recent political construct, and a fragile one. It has to be held together by the aura of power radiating from Downing Street. That goes doubly for Britishness, especially in the fraught context of Northern Ireland: it is a way of identifying not just with a country but with an idea of greatness.

By making May and the British government seem ridiculous, all the DUP achieved was to make it more likely that they would have to capitulate on all the red lines of a hard Brexit

In a famous passage of The English Constitution Walter Bagehot wrote of the need to preserve the illusion of the monarchy: "We must not let in daylight upon magic." The same is true of the British prime minister: at least in the conduct of vital international talks, she or he must exude authority.

And what the DUP did on Monday was to rip aside the curtains and let a cruel, harsh daylight in on poor Theresa May. As at the end of a cheap vampire movie, her authority crumbled to dust in front of the watching world. And with it went whatever magic still attaches to the image of postimperial Britain.

By barking at May and having her cower in obedience, the DUP exposed the weakness of the very thing it purports to uphold. But the embarrassment was not just for May personally or even for her supporters. This was the mortification of Britain itself, the abject humbling of a once-feared power.

This is not a smart thing for the DUP to have done. It aligned the party more firmly than ever with the enemies of May’s gradual shift towards pragmatism.

In doing so it has alienated a swathe of British opinion that would now prefer to see the DUP as a foreign body in its body politic. You don’t save the union by making so many of its citizens revile you.

And for what? In the end, by making May and the British government seem ridiculous, all the DUP achieved was to make it more likely that they would have to capitulate on all the red lines of a hard Brexit. It accidentally confounded the desires of its own allies among the extreme Brexiteers by creating the circumstances in which Britain has effectively had to agree to be bound by the regulations of the single market and the customs union.

The sword it was waving at the Irish government turned out to be a pin that pricked both its own moment of power and the bubble of Brexit’s grand self-delusions.