The party can triple-somersault away from previously fixed positions. But whatever it does is geared towards securing the constitutional positionby Alex Kane / January 25, 2019 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
Everybody at Westminster is suddenly interested in knowing the mind of the Democratic Unionist Party. After all, it will play a crucial role in the Brexit endgame: Theresa May urgently needs the party back on board if she is to rescue her deal. But reading the party is fiendishly difficult: the DUP has a remarkable ability for triple-somersaulting away from a previously fixed position, without a hint of embarrassment.
In 1998 it opposed the Good Friday Agreement, describing it as a “one-way ticket to a united Ireland.” It insisted that sharing power with Sinn Féin was an “unspeakable act of evil.” When the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) entered a pact with the Conservatives in 2009, the DUP mocked it for “cosying up” to a party with a history of betraying unionism. But in 2017 it saved May’s bacon, and continues to prop her up in No 10 even though it has publicly damned her Northern Ireland “backstop” as a betrayal. What’s more, it hopes to be back in government with Sinn Féin fairly soon, in the institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement.
Like most unionists, Democratic Unionists mistrust the backstop because it could change the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, drawing a new border of sorts down the Irish Sea. It is not so much divergence from London that is the problem: historically, the party of Ian Paisley called itself “Democratic” because it insisted on the right of Ulster’s pro-Union majority to go its own way. Indeed, it still supports a strict ban on abortion and opposes same-sex marriage. No, the real difficulty for the DUP is alignment with Dublin. If Northern Ireland were closely tied to EU regulations while Britain were not, that would give rise to an all-Ireland entity. In important respects Northern Ireland would remain in an EU that Britain had left. Even a time-limited backstop would be problematic. DUP leader Arlene Foster—who defected from the UUP in 2004—sees this as her party’s greatest ever challenge. Getting it wrong would be disastrous.
The DUP’s journey from the poor cousin of unionism, in the shadow of the UUP, to the first minister’s office and 60 per cent of the pro-Union vote was a long one. It got there by allowing the UUP to take all the risks—and then exploiting its resulting crises. While David Trimble floundered during initial attempts to kick start the Assembly and Executive after 1998, Peter Robinson, a brilliant strategist, picked off each UUP mistake and made sure the DUP wouldn’t repeat them. By 2003 the party of protest was the party of choice for most unionists.
The DUP was always somewhat Eurosceptic—it supported Leave in 1975—vaguely regarding embroilment with Europe as disturbing the established constitutional order, which had protected Northern Ireland. But when it plumped for Brexit in 2016 it didn’t expect to be on the winning side, and so played the uber-unionist card with abandon during the campaign. The UUP was backing Remain, so the DUP assumed there was nothing to lose by touting the “new opportunities” of Leave while portraying the UUP as weak on UK unionism.
For the DUP, then, supporting Leave was chiefly tactical—about winning over another tranche of UUP voters. Within weeks of the result Arlene Foster and then Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness had penned a joint letter to the PM with a strategy for protecting Northern Irish interests. When the dynamics changed again, and the 2017 election made the DUP kingmakers at Westminster, it reverted to uber-unionism, leaving Sinn Féin and the other Northern Irish parties out of the negotiating loop.
What will it do in the final strait of Brexit? The party is hard to second guess. Like Sinn Féin, it never enters negotiations without a range of options tested in internal discussions. If one option goes down it has the next one ready. Hence its reputation as “ferociously good at negotiations,” earned by outplaying statesmen from London. May, like Tony Blair and David Cameron, has found the DUP impossibly difficult to manage. There is one thing that she needs to remember: it will walk away if it doesn’t think it can sell a deal to its grassroots. It doesn’t like to rattle its base, having seen the damage inflicted upon the UUP.
Yet the DUP doesn’t want a hard Brexit, let alone no deal. For all the tough talking and the media attention fuelled by its links to Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, the DUP wants to make sure that the Union is safe, and seen to be safe. It knows—though this is only whispered—that Rees-Mogg and Johnson would abandon Northern Ireland if it meant a clean Brexit for the rest of the UK.
The Union is key to the DUP’s thinking and always has been. Whatever it does is geared towards securing the constitutional position. So it will remain flexible about everything else—Brexit included—even when it seems that its feet are in cement. But as soon as it can spot a vulnerability in the constitutional position—or its own electoral prospects—it will perform the necessary triple-somersault. Even at this late stage everything is in play. It’s always the long game. May doesn’t yet need to despair about her partners, but she cannot relax either.