Newton Emerson: Whatever happens next, the DUP will be against it
Party has backed itself into a corner by refusing to own a softer version of Brexit
Since the end of last month, when the UK’s options sharply narrowed to a soft Brexit or no Brexit at all, the DUP had two choices: own the outcome, or disown it.
Last week, it looked as if the unionists were going to own it. Ian Paisley jnr addressed a hardline Brexit rally outside the Houses of Parliament, shouting “you are red, you are white, you are dynamite” – bizarrely, a Danish football chant. But Paisley speaks only for himself.
Nigel Dodds, the party’s deputy leader, sensationally declared he would rather have no Brexit than British prime minister Theresa May’s withdrawal deal.
Jeffrey Donaldson MP, rumoured to be the next DUP leader, spoke of a customs union and how this could mitigate Border concerns.
In a round of indicative votes, the DUP abstained on the two softest proposals – customs union membership and customs union plus single market membership – and also abstained on ruling out no deal. Having rejected May’s deal, the DUP was inching towards accepting the inevitable, softer alternative.
Then May reached out to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the moment passed. Over the past week the DUP has switched into full disowning mode. Donaldson explained he does not support a customs union and leader Arlene Foster declared May’s approaches to Brussels “humiliating”.
The DUP has reverted to promoting the so-called Malthouse compromise, otherwise known as “managed no deal”, although this was dead on arrival when the British government proposed it in January as a plan B if the backstop could not be watered down.
Since January, the DUP had watered down its own demands on the backstop, from abolition to a time limit to merely seeking assurance on a conditional UK exit. The soft Brexit options it abstained on had potential, at least politically, to defuse the backstop further. But now the DUP has returned to full-throated complaints about the backstop, although a guarantee against a hard border is unavoidable, deal or no deal.
All the DUP has left to own is its mistake of backing Brexit in the first place
In short, whatever happens next, the DUP will be against it. Whether that is May’s deal after a short extension, a softer deal after a longer extension or possibly no Brexit after an even longer extension, the largest party of unionism will be claiming heroic defeat.
If the UK does manage to leave the EU, the DUP has also set its face against any plausible future trading arrangement. Unionism and Northern Ireland politics in general are doomed to years of the resulting negativity, to the exclusion and domination of all else.
In the brief week when the DUP toyed with owning a soft Brexit, it had genuine ownership to consider. Its 10 MPs were still seen as crucial to getting any government deal through the Commons. But with Labour’s involvement the unionists were suddenly sidelined, although Labour’s co-operation remains far from certain.
So all the DUP has left to own is its mistake of backing Brexit in the first place. This is not something it can confess on the doorsteps as it campaigns for council elections on May 2nd and a likely European election on May 23rd.
Three-quarters of DUP supporters backed Brexit in the EU referendum and they have all since been told the backstop threatens the union.
New prime minister
After the elections, the DUP will be facing a new prime minister. It sounded out May’s prospective successors last month for assurances against the dreaded sea border, by keeping Britain and Northern Ireland in customs and regulatory alignment, but received no promises.
The DUP’s default stance in such a scenario will be to position itself as the defender of the union against a treacherous British government. Yet unless it wants to risk putting Corbyn in Number 10 it must continue propping that government up. This will make it look ridiculous.
The only way out of all these traps is the Stormont lock: a British government plan to give Stormont a say against any “divergence in practice” between Britain and Northern Ireland, should the backstop come into operation.
When this was first elaborated in January, Dodds dismissed it as “cosmetic and meaningless”. But two weeks ago the DUP began talking it up. The British government has since enhanced it to a “triple lock”, including the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, to prevent May’s successor unpicking any withdrawal deal.
The DUP could present this as a positive, powerful defence of the union. Nationalists need not be alarmed, as the UK would still have to meet all its backstop treaty obligations, including maintaining an open border. Nor can Brussels object, as it has declared the UK’s internal market to be entirely the UK’s business.
But first, the DUP must restore devolution, which means meeting Sinn Féin’s demands on deadlocked Stormont issues and offering republicans enough to help dig unionists out of their Brexit hole.
There is no sign the DUP is capable of enduring that humiliation. It is red, white and blue – and it is stuffed.