It’s ironic that a region ignored in the build-up to the Referendum vote is now the axis of all negotiations which determine the Prime Minister’s successby Adrianne Peltz / December 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds in Westminster, London, following a meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May and Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley to discuss the powersharing impasse. Photo: PA Betwixt and between, the Prime Minister has survived the attempt to oust her with enough support to secure another 12 months of leadership—yet without enough support from her own Party to see her Brexit deal pass through Parliament. For bystanders, political hacks and the countless businesses reliant on the passage of this bill for clarity, the impasse is obvious—neither here nor there the Brexit conundrum remains unresolved. Attention must now return to the very real predicament she faces. How to usher an unpopular deal through what is increasingly a populist parliament? The battle to keep her colleagues’ confidence pales in significance beside the task of finding a compromise between the only deal on the table—which the DUP have dubbed a “rotten agreement”—and conjuring a slew of concessions from Europe that will satisfy enough MPs to cast a meaningful vote in favour of it. Put simply, the 200 MPs who signalled their support for May on Wednesday night are a distraction from the 318 she needs to satisfy before March 2019. At the heart of these deliberations is the complexity of Northern Ireland. It’s ironic—but unsurprising, to those up to speed with the nature of Northern Irish politics—that the regional realities that were ignored in the build-up to the Referendum vote should now be the axis of all negotiations which determine the Prime Minister’s success. The DUP, elevated to kingmaker status, may be considering that they’ve played their cards too soon. After weeks of tense briefing against Theresa May in the hope of pressuring her to accommodate their demands, while positioning the Irish Border Backstop as a threat to the Union, they were unable to influence enough Conservative MP’s to secure a new leader more sympathetic to their interests. With that option now quashed, the DUP must make a choice between supporting the Prime Minister and her next offering of a Withdrawal deal—or joining with Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition, risking a general election and potentially losing their current position of power within Parliament. Commentators have emphasised the ruthlessness of the DUP’s negotiators and the fact that, with their emphasis on the union above all else, they would be more than willing to walk away if their demands over the backstop aren’t met. It is unlikely, however, that the DUP would be willing to forfeit their Confidence and Supply deal at this stage for two important reasons. In 2017, they won the South Belfast constituency for the first time in the party’s history, knocking the incumbent SDLP MP out with a mere 1,996 majority. This knife-edge constituency, which has seen a backlash from residents against 2017’s winner Emma Little Pengelly, would be challenging to win a second time. Equally, their victory in South Antrim last year could be undone. The seat has a history of swinging between the unionist parties, having changed hands 5 times since 2000. With a 3208 majority after Paul Girvan replaced the Ulster Unionist’s Danny Kinahan in 2017, it would be wise for their strategists to take nothing for granted. With anti-DUP sentiment mounting in Northern Ireland, punishment at the polls and a loss of seats would render them weaker in a hung parliament—and obsolete should Labour or the Conservatives win a majority. As pressure on Corbyn mounts from within his own party to force a no confidence vote in the Government, the Labour leader has already signalled he would team up with SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Green Party to get the vote over the line. Both Labour and the DUP have already confirmed that they’ve opened a channel of communication, so should May fail to get legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement which satisfy the DUP, it’s likely they will threaten to vote with the alliance in one final attempt to intimidate the Prime Minister. Both Corbyn and Arlene Foster want to see the backstop disappear, with Corbyn saying it was “bad for our union”—a phrase that could have been plucked straight from the DUP manifesto. For now, therefore, their aims may overlap, with Corbyn promising that under his premiership the UK would ditch the backstop and hated Irish sea border by negotiating an alternative customs union that would satisfy the DUP. Yet not only is it unlikely that this alternative agreement would ever be approved by Brussels, it’s also unlikely the DUP would reverse their misgivings about Corbyn. Despite recent Labour attempts to make inroads with the DUP, it is their ideologically-driven belief that to team up with a Labour Party led by him would be dereliction of their duty to maintain and defend the Union. Corbyn is a left-wing hardliner, supposed fraterniser of the IRA and—most offensive to the DUP—a subject of Her Majesty the Queen who refused to kneel before her. Any pact with Labour under his leadership would lead to recriminations from their grassroots bread and butter voters in Northern Ireland. What we’re seeing is the domestic politics of Northern Ireland exported to the corridors of Westminster. The sectarian divide that runs through this country is the single biggest influence on future Brexit negotiations. The DUP have reiterated their opposition to the deal, declaring it a threat to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status with the backstop placing the union in existential peril. This signifies how serious they are in opposing the Brussels insurance policy—no matter how remote the chances are of it ever being invoked. Digging their heels in and obstructing policy is a tactic the party is experienced in deploying. However, they are also known for last-minute climb downs and legislative u-turns—most notably following their long-term opposition to the early stages of the Good Friday Agreement. Just this week, Nigel Dodds changed gears after weeks of briefing against the Prime Minister, saying the policy is the problem, not the leader. However, if Theresa May is to see her magnum opus through, she must first address the legitimate problems facing Northern Ireland under Brexit, or risk being unable to persuade parliament either to support her or oust her—leaving us once again betwixt and between.