As Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg yesterday abandoned the DUP, Nigel Dodds tonight issued a barely-coded warning that the DUP is open to a softer form of Brexit – or even no Brexit – if it keeps the UK together.
Mr Johnson and Mr Rees-Mogg (inset) U-turned – breaking their pledges not to do so – and voted for Theresa May’s deal, despite the continued presence of the backstop, which would keep Northern Ireland tied to the EU even if the rest of the UK diverged.
But even their support was insufficient for the prime minister to carry her deal through the Commons at the third attempt, with it being defeated by 58 votes, leaving Mrs May weaker than ever and under fresh pressure to resign.
In the immediate aftermath of the vote, Mr Dodds, the DUP’s influential Westminster leader, fired an implicit warning shot across the bows of those hard Brexiteers who had abandoned the DUP in the vote.
The North Belfast MP told BBC Newsnight: “I would stay in the European Union and remain, rather than risk Northern Ireland’s position. That’s how strongly I feel about the Union...the [Brexit] answer must be something that works for the whole of the United Kingdom - that’s our first and main priority.”
Mr Dodds stressed that his party still wants to see Brexit delivered and the referendum result respected, but added: “It can’t be at the risk of separating Northern Ireland out from the rest of the United Kingdom.”
In an earlier interview with the BBC, Mr Dodds left open the possibility of any Brexit – even the softest version.
He said: “We will measure whatever options are available in terms of: Does it deliver Brexit and does it retain the integrity of the United Kingdom, economically and politically.”
Mr Dodds went on: “For us, we want to make sure that there’s no internal trade barriers created – customs or single market – between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. So we will look at any option.
“At the end of the day, whilst we believe that it was right to vote leave, when we were in the European Union people were quite happy with that in Northern Ireland because we were there with everybody else [in the UK].
“As we leave, our simple request is that we don’t create those economic barriers that will long-term be injurious to Northern Ireland...we will look at any proposal with that main criteria in mind.”
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald described events in the Commons as “the British political circus” and said that as a result of Mrs May’s deal being defeated again “we are now moving closer to a no deal crash out Brexit”.
The Dublin TD added: “The behaviour of the DUP has been reckless and outrageous. They have been seduced by the games at Westminster at the cost of farmers, the economy and the views of the majority of people in the North.”
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said that his party wanted to see the referendum result respected but said that the backstop had “poisoned” the issue. He said: “The backstop contravenes the principle of consent, places a border up the middle of the Irish Sea and in so doing breaches the Belfast Agreement. It paves the way for Northern Ireland to diverge from the rest of the United Kingdom over time and no unionist worthy of the name can agree to it.”
TUV leader Jim Allister welcomed Mrs May’s defeat and called for a no-deal departure, saying: “It remains correct that no deal is better than a bad deal, which Mrs May’s concoction of vassalage most certainly is.”
Alliance’s Stephen Farry said that if the Brexit process has not reached a “positive and constructive conclusion” by April 12, then the government “has no other option but to revoke Article 50”.
SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said that the government should now ask for a “long extension” to Article 50, thus delaying Brexit.