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The DUP’s Brexit U-Turn Is Too Little Too Late

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party appears to have had a change of heart on the subject of Brexit lately. Having spent the last 4 months being the ultimate gloomsters and extolling the damage to The Union it will bring their leader in the House of Commons, Jeffrey Donaldson, said in an interview with BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme that “in the end customs checks doesn’t mean that you change the constitutional status of a part of the United Kingdom” before going on to acknowledge the potential opportunities.

Whilst this is a welcome development from the province’s largest unionist party it however rings rather hollow as they haven’t exactly been bystanders in the whole Brexit process. Having been in a confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservative Party in the last parliament the DUP were much closer to the action than other parties and held a degree of influence, though much less than they made out. In the last chance negotiations of the Withdrawal Agreement with Prime Minister Boris Johnson they were consulted very closely on the development of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Or at least they were until they walked away, outraged that it put a “Border in the Irish Sea”.

Now on the surface of it this may seem like a perfectly reasonable objection for a party of their ilk but on closer inspection their objections were somewhat more self serving. The protocol itself basically means, in the absence of a UK-EU trade deal, that after the transition period Northern Ireland will remain aligned to EU regulations for food and manufactured goods as well as remain in the UK’s customs territory but have customs controls applied to goods transiting NI for the Republic of Ireland or at high risk of going ending up there. Four years after its commencement the continuation of the whole arrangement will be dependent on the consent of the NI Assembly. In the negotiations the DUP agreed with all these measures except for the consent mechanism.

Whilst the DUP were very keen on a local consent mechanism, which was previously absent in the anti-democratic aberration that was The Backstop, they disagreed over its function. The DUP, having become born again guardians of the Good Friday Agreement that afternoon, wanted the continuation of the protocol to be dependent on a quirk of the NI Assembly called a cross community vote. This requires a majority of unionist and nationalist members being in favour of a motion for it to be carried, giving the DUP an effective veto in this scenario. The EU however weren’t so keen and preferred a straight majority vote, the government was satisfied with this also seeing it as a reasonable compromise but as they wouldn’t budge on this point the DUP flounced off.

All of a sudden everything that they had been totally fine with previously had become a “Border in the Irish Sea” and they returned to Belfast shouting betrayal. They then took this rhetoric on the road in the ensuing general election campaign, even unironically invoking Carson at “Betrayal Act” rallies organised by their reactionary proxies. Unfortunately for them this didn’t cut much ice with the voters as I found out on the doorstep. While people of all persuasions were skeptical of the NI Protocol in general they didn’t quite buy the DUP’s analysis, in most cases just seeing their stance as another one of their periodic tantrums.

This turnaround by the DUP also has an added dimension of ignominy with their behaviour since the general election. Despite the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement they have tried to have it both ways by, in the one breath signalling their support for Brexit as a concept, then in next try to paint themselves as victims of the situation. The most egregious example of this was on the floor of the assembly last week where DUP Environment Minister Edwin Poots described the NI Protocol as “hugely damaging” and that “it needs to be changed”, casually omitting that fact that the very chamber he is a member of can decide on whether it continues to exist or not.

If the DUP are going to regain any credibility on this issue going forward then they will need to drop this victimhood mentality and acknowledge that they have a hand in shaping things. As part of the New Decade New Approach deal that restored Stormont the NI Executive will be able to send representatives to the Joint Committee that shapes the specifics of the NI protocol. To that end they should put forward candidates with a pedigree in trade negotiation and not the usual party insiders or familiar stooges to ensure the arrangements are optimised to NI’s interests.

Should the DUP wish to get rid of the NI protocol then they must spend the next four years building a coalition in the assembly to get the required majority. They will need to advance solid economic arguments for its removal that cut across party lines and present fleshed out workable alternatives. A lot of work has already been done on this, most notably by Prosperity UK, so they already have a firm base from which to develop any ideas.

Personally I doubt whether they will be capable of successfully taking such a course. The DUP are a party that doesn’t really do economics and their argument for Brexit over the past three and a half years has mostly boiled down to “We’re unionists and we want it, nuff said” so I’m not exactly filled with confidence. Whatever happens they’ve certainly got their work cut out.

This article was originally published on on 9th March 2020

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