The DUP last night played a crucial role in a close Commons vote which saw a narrow majority of MPs agree to renegotiate the Brexit backstop if there is to be a deal with the EU.
Two weeks after helping to overwhelmingly defeat Theresa May’s Brexit deal because of the backstop – which could see Northern Ireland diverge from the rest of the UK – within it, the DUP yesterday secured another significant victory.
First, the DUP managed to get Mrs May to do a U-turn on the backstop by saying that she would now try to renegotiate it, and then that was followed by the passage of an amendment by senior Tory backbencher Sir Graham Brady as part of that plan.
By a majority of just 16, MPs voted in favour of Sir Graham’s amendment, which, unusually, the government whipped its MPs to support.
During a night of dramatic votes on amendments from both Remainers and Brexiteers, the government managed to prevail in most of the key votes, albeit by slender margins.
But the government narrowly lost one vote when it failed to prevent the passage of an amendment which opposed a no-deal Brexit. However, that vote is not binding on the government.
There was a bullish response from both Dublin and Brussels, which insisted that the withdrawal agreement on offer to the UK would not be renegotiated.
But the DUP’s 10 MPs were jubilant. Chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was reported to have punched the air as the vote was announced and Westminster leader Nigel Dodds said that it was “a significant night because for the first time the House by a majority has expressed [support for] the sort of deal that will get through and will have a majority and we will work with the prime minister to deliver the right deal for the United Kingdom”.
Sir Graham Brady’s amendment gives the prime minister a mandate to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement and replace the backstop with “alternative arrangements” to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
The nature of those alternative arrangements is not entirely clear and was the subject of unsuccessful questioning from many MPs during yesterday’s debate, including from North Down MP Lady Hermon who was frustrated at the absence of clarity on the point.
During the debate, Mrs May said that she was seeking a “significant and legally binding change to the Withdrawal Agreement”.
Mr Dodds welcomed Mrs May’s comment about the backstop, saying that she was “quite right to emphasise that as the primary problem” and that she could be “assured of our support”.
The North Belfast MP told the Commons that the DUP was committed to not having a hard border on the island of Ireland but not at the expense of a border between Northern Ireland and GB.
There were rowdy scenes in the Commons after the SNP’s Westminster leader stood up after the vote was announced to repeatedly allege that the vote meant that the Tories had “effectively ripped apart the Good Friday Agreement”.
Mr Dodds responded forcefully, saying that it was “quite frankly outrageous” and “utterly reckless” for the Scottish politician “to talk in those terms”.
In response to the vote, the Irish government repeated that the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation. In a statement, it said that the EU position “has not changed”, with the agreement comprising “a carefully negotiated compromise, which balances the UK position on customs and the single market with avoiding a hard border and protecting the integrity of the EU customs union and single market. The best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal is to ratify this agreement.”
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill urged both the Irish government and the EU to “stand firm against attempts to sabotage what has already been agreed”.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “The rejection of the Irish backstop, the only viable mechanism to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, is an affront on the Good Friday Agreement.”