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Newton Emerson: Foster’s lack of control over DUP is one of Brexit’s original sins

First Minister risks highlighting splits within her own party if she lauds sea border deal

How will the DUP learn to live with the sea border?

It might take hope from its failure to stop the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, supposedly a cataclysm for the union, yet so boring in operation that everyone promptly forgot about it.

The technicalities of trade are intrinsically dull. After the Brexit dramas of the past four years, there is great scope for de-dramatisation. But even the unexpectedly good deal struck this week between the UK and the EU leaves impacts that will be a constant reminder of the sea border’s existence. This issue is not going to fade away.

The DUP was more proactive in its cynicism towards the 1998 Belfast Agreement, seen at the time as heralding the party’s demise. After bitterly rejecting the deal, it moved into Stormont while pretending to oppose it, then claimed to have “fixed” it with the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.


That would be a tough trick to repeat with the sea border. The DUP can no longer portray itself as the anti-establishment defender of unionism from the arrogant naivety of the UUP. Those roles have reversed. It is in no position to demand a St Andrews-style renegotiation or even a few face-saving changes.

Only one pragmatic option remains: embrace the sea border straight away, spin it as positive and insist your leadership can make it even better.

That is what the British government is doing, with almost impressive shamelessness. Northern Ireland is now guaranteed "the best of both worlds", according to deputy prime minister Michael Gove, while a trade deal will improve matters further.

Splits and absurdities

DUP leader Arlene Foster is clearly inclined to attempt the same approach, greatly helped by restrictions on trade with Britain being far less severe than feared. But lauding the sea border risks highlighting splits and absurdities within her own party, as DUP MPs continue raging against a Brexit outcome they were directly instrumental in causing.

When the DUP's Sammy Wilson hectored the Commons on Tuesday on how the sea border "diminishes my Britishness", he was plumbing depths of denial that many unionist voters will find difficult to fathom.

The DUP's talent shortage is only getting worse, with Brexit having tainted the top ranks while sabotaging or demoralising the next generation

Of course, it is not unusual for politicians to be recalcitrant or to refuse to accept the consequences of their actions. Wilson is no different in that regard to the Corbynist holdouts on the Labour benches beside him. But Labour's new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, seems to have a plan worked out to purge his party of its malcontents, including Jeremy Corbyn. Foster cannot even get Wilson to wear a face mask. Her lack of control over the DUP is one of Brexit's original sins: certain figures were given free rein to back Leave in the EU referendum in the belief it would be harmless to indulge them, as Remain would win.

Most parties in the DUP’s predicament would hit the reset button with a change of leadership. There is plenty of time for a replacement to rewrite the script – the next Assembly election is 18 months away. But the DUP does not have a replacement, a fact that has long kept Foster in post. The talent shortage is only getting worse, with Brexit having tainted the top ranks while sabotaging or demoralising the next generation.

A show of contrition from the DUP leader for her party’s mistakes might undo much of the damage: a born-again testimonial if not a confession. But too many of her prideful colleagues would not let this stand.

Precedent suggests Foster will manage weakness with silence.

Johnson first stabbed the DUP in the back over the sea border in October 2019. The DUP scarcely mentioned Brexit in the UK general election two months later, focusing instead on Stormont issues – irrelevant in a Westminster campaign.

Straightforward alternatives

Next year’s centenary of Northern Ireland is being emphasised as the latest distraction. Menacing the union’s future then flag-waving about its past might not prove as popular with DUP supporters as Foster appears to believe. Unionist voters losing heart with the party have straightforward alternatives: the UUP has positioned itself as a firm critic of the sea border, while Alliance has always fully endorsed it.

Although the UUP is no great electoral threat, the DUP is still touchy enough about criticism from rival unionists to be spooked into a more hardline stance.

Last December, the DUP lost a significant share of its vote, some of it directly to a triumphant Alliance. Polls show these trends continuing. The DUP has been able to rally unionists around it up to now, no matter how egregious its performance, in order to prevent Sinn Féin becoming the largest party – a competition engineered at St Andrews. But Sinn Féin’s vote fell even more sharply last December, so that threat is no longer guaranteed to work.

The likeliest impact of the sea border is for all these trends to continue. The DUP is far from sunk, but it is slowly taking on water.