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
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…