Northern Ireland continues to expose the contradictions at the heart of Brexitby Sarah Creighton / January 16, 2019 / Leave a comment
The Teller’s voice was clear and loud. “Ayes to the right, 202; the Nos to the left, 432.” After two years of negotiations, debate and drama, the House of Commons voted against Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. It was over in a matter of seconds. The government lost by 230 votes, the biggest Commons defeat since 1924.
Among the MPs cheering yesterday were the DUP. As Theresa May stared stony faced across the Commons Chamber, I wonder if she was thinking back to that sunny day in June 2017 when she signed the Confidence and Supply Agreement. Maybe she looked back further to June 2016 when, as Home Secretary, she paid a visit to Northern Ireland before the referendum. During that visit she said that there would be border controls if the UK pulled out of the European Union. The visit passed without much fanfare in the press. Nobody in Britain batted an eyelid.
This week, every single DUP MP voted against the Withdrawal Agreement. Nobody should be surprised by this. The party has been consistent in its opposition to the Agreement and its contents for a long time.
The DUP, along with the majority of unionist parties in Northern Ireland, opposes the contentious “backstop.” The backstop was first agreed in the Joint Report in December 2017, and it was the DUP who raised hell when the Report was leaked before publication. Theresa May was humiliated on the international stage and forced into an embarrassing climbdown after telling the EU that the Report was a done deal.
The backstop can only be triggered at the end of the two-year transition period. It will only come into operation if there is no agreement between the UK and EU on how to avoid a hard border. If it does become active, Northern Ireland will have to maintain alignment with some of the rules of the Single Market. A temporary customs arrangement will also exist between the UK and the EU.
A border of the mind
The backstop is controversial because it means Northern Ireland will be treated differently to the rest of the UK. EU rules will apply in Belfast that may not apply in London. There will be a border down the Irish Sea and possibly further checks at ports and airports.
This border, unlike a hard border, will be invisible, but some unionists believe it will damage their connection with Britain. For many, this isn’t about livestock getting checked at the port in Larne. It’s about feeling part of the nation that defines their identity. Some think the backstop will mean a united Ireland in all but name.
Many people—including me—have pointed out that Northern Ireland is already treated differently to the rest of the UK. Some unionists argue that their issue is not divergence from Britain but the fact that they will have no say on different rules.
Eagle-eyed readers might note that Northern Ireland could have had a say on Brexit and the backstop if the Assembly was still up in running. The Assembly collapsed because of the Renewable Heating Incentive, a controversial boiler scheme that was overseen by Arlene Foster when she was a Minister.
The DUP’s voters will not be angry about the party’s actions yesterday. While a majority of people in Northern Ireland support the Withdrawal Agreement, the DUP’s base does not. Northern Ireland’s second largest unionist party, the Ulster Unionist Party, is also against the Prime Minister’s deal.
Northern Ireland is arguably part of the reason for the Agreement’s defeat. Practically ignored in the referendum campaign, it exposed the contradictions at the heart of Brexit. It is ironic that it has played such a massive role.
I hold no political candle for the DUP, but it is unfair to lay the blame for yesterday’s mess entirely at their feet. Both the European Union and the British Government have had to navigate a rocky path through our delicate history.
Confidence and supply?
To the surprise of many, after May’s defeat the DUP confirmed its intention to vote against Labour’s motion of No Confidence in the government. Speaking on BBC Newsline, Arlene Foster said that she wants Theresa May to go back to Brussels and get a better deal. The DUP believes that the House of Commons’ rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement will spur the EU into making concessions.
The DUP’s support for the government looks like a calculated political move instead of earnest bargaining. Their privileged position may be damaged if there is a general election. A second referendum will rally their base, but they will once again be on the wrong side of public opinion in Northern Ireland.
The party’s sleuthing, however, is about more than Brexit. People forget that unionists in Northern Ireland lost their majority at the last Assembly election. The backstop is seen as another loss of power, another concession. The DUP doesn’t want to be responsible for it.
As we crawl through this mess towards an unknown future, what happens next remains to be seen. Only a fool would try to predict the future. Until Brexit is done and dusted, all eyes will remain fixed on Northern Ireland.