The Insider

The DUP has paid the price of its own short-termism

The Tory party may follow suit in walking back from some of the impacts of Brexit

January 31, 2024
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson leaving his party’s HQ in east Belfast, where he briefed senior members on proposals aimed at ending Stormont's power-sharing impasse. Image: PA Images / Alamy
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson leaving his party’s HQ in east Belfast, where he briefed senior members on proposals aimed at ending Stormont's power-sharing impasse. Image: PA Images / Alamy

The slow recantation of Brexit’s impacts by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) appears to have made it possible to restore devolved government in Belfast, after a two-year hiatus. It is a prelude to what may ultimately happen to Britain’s Tory party when—and if—it once again starts searching for electoral viability. 

Let’s recap the history. The DUP foolishly backed Brexit in 2016, against the large majority in Northern Ireland who voted against it in the referendum. DUP leaders saw Brexit as a visceral vote against Dublin and Irish unification in a cultural and political battle against an increasingly popular Sinn Féin. Their expectation was that Brexit would lose the referendum, so they would never face the calamitous economic and social consequences of attempting to recreate a trade border between north and south within Ireland, in defiance of the power-sharing Good Friday agreement which presupposed the eradication of such a border. 

Even more stupidly, after Leave won in 2016 they backed a hard Brexit—taking the UK out of the EU customs union and single market. Theresa May’s government lost its parliamentary majority in 2017, and the DUP’s stance was crucial to the replacement in 2019 of May by Boris Johnson, who pledged to “get (hard) Brexit done”. It also helped tilt the balance against a second referendum which might have stopped Brexit in its tracks, as most in Northern Ireland would undoubtedly have voted to do after the horror story of Brexit in respect of Ireland.

Once again, short-term DUP politics, and a failure to understand the inevitable policy consequences of hard Brexit, ruled the day. Whereas May had conceded that the price of an economically borderless island of Ireland would be continuing close alignment between the UK and EU on trade and market rules, Johnson promised the DUP that he could deliver both a hard Brexit and no new trade borders with the rest of the UK. 

As soon as he took office in 2019, Johnson had no choice but to betray the DUP in order to get a trade treaty with the EU on the basis of Great Britain leaving the customs union and single market. Hence the Northern Ireland protocol, in effect keeping Northern Ireland within the EU single market and requiring border controls down the Irish Sea, in return for an economically borderless island of Ireland that is essential for the peace process. In typical fashion, Johnson lied about this requirement for the new trade border. The truth became stark when Brexit took effect in 2021 and a trade crisis between Northern Ireland and Great Britain quickly materialised. 

Faced with the Northern Ireland protocol and its implementation, the DUP went on strike. It pulled out of the Northern Ireland executive and said it wouldn’t return until the protocol was ditched. By now it had lost its position as the primary leading Northern Ireland party to Sinn Féin, partly because of its mishandling of Brexit, and it was anxious not to be seen to be humiliated twice over by accepting both the protocol and its secondary position within the NI government.

By last year Johnson had been replaced by Rishi Sunak and Arlene Foster by Jeffrey Donaldson. Sunak managed last February to negotiate a better version of the protocol with the EU, reducing Irish Sea trade controls. However, this so-called “Windsor Framework” still left Donaldson with a bitter Brexit pill, and humiliation at the hands of Sinn Féin. He has spent the last year hoping that something better would come along while claiming to want to restore the Belfast executive in the face of increasing disquiet—even among unionists—at its continuing suspension.

What has now happened, in effect, is that in order to restart the NI executive, Donaldson has reportedly accepted the Windsor Framework on the understanding that the UK government will do all it can to minimise—even eliminate—Irish Sea border controls by continuing to align GB trade policy closely with the EU. This is a belated recantation of Brexit: EU membership provided for no trade border controls at all in return for complete EU/UK alignment through the single market and customs union. 

So, what goes around comes around. The DUP hopes to regain the political initiative from Sinn Féin by recanting Brexit in practice, if not in form. And the Brexit Tory government is now talking the language of alignment not divergence with the EU.

Who knows how long it will take the Tory party to abandon Brexit entirely, faced with a rampant Labour party which seeks to reduce trade barriers with the EU by discarding the claim that we can simply go it alone. The moment of truth can’t come soon enough.