The DUP needs to be talking to Varadkar, not putting the boot into him

Today marks the beginning of Arlene Foster's third year as leader of the DUP.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 18th December 2017, 12:32 pm
Alex Kane
Alex Kane

The previous two have been, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, a mixture of the best of times and the worst of times ... the spring of hope and the winter of despair.

She took over from Peter Robinson when there were internal concerns that he was becoming a potential election liability; but in the Assembly election in May 2016, her first as leader, the DUP held its 38 seats, increased its vote by over 4,000 and widened the gap with Sinn Fein to almost 36,000.

A Programme for Government was nailed into place fairly quickly – after it became clear that the UUP, SDLP and Alliance wouldn’t be in the Executive – and the DUP and Sinn Fein signed up to a non-aggression pact.

In November 2016 Foster and McGuinness even agreed a joint article in which they boasted of their ability to work well together. At that year’s annual conference Foster seemed to be mistress of all she surveyed on the political landscape.

It’s a different story today. The Assembly and Executive have been mothballed for a year. Foster is no longer first minister. Unionists no longer have a majority in the Assembly; where the gap between the DUP and SF is down to just 1,200. Political power has shifted from Belfast to London. The relationship between Dublin and the DUP is, according to Sammy Wilson, worse than it has been for 25 years. And while it is true that the DUP has, thanks to the agreement with the Conservatives, huge influence at the heart of government, it is not the case that the influence translates into the power to reboot the Executive.

The biggest change of all, though, since she became leader, has been the impact of the Brexit result. I argued at the time that the DUP was, ‘very content’ to be on the Leave side of the debate; allowing it to build a unionist vote on the back of the UUP’s decision (which I cautioned against at the time) to support Remain. And I also said that the DUP ‘fully expected’ the Remain side to win, meaning that there would be no collateral damage afterwards.

Writing on Saturday, RTE’s Tommie Gorman, one of the most astute observers of local politics, said: “When David Cameron announced the EU referendum on February 20 2016, Arlene Foster was just two months into the DUP leadership job. Privately, Cameron’s office assured the DUP that he would comprehensively carry the Remain argument. Pragmatism suggested that a pro-Brexit stance would strengthen newcomer Foster’s position behind the DUP wheel. She was on the same page as her Westminster MPs and also boxing off the danger of an Allister challenge from right field. (But since the result) Foster has been struggling with the Brexit hoodoo. It played a role in the collapse of power-sharing and the continued closure of Stormont. It prompted Theresa May to call a disastrous snap general election that gave 10 DUP MPs unprecedented influence but potential pitfalls as well as clout. It placed the DUP front and centre promoting a policy rejected by a majority of voters. And it has poisoned relations between the DUP and Dublin.”

Every DUP MP, MLA, councillor and party member should clip out Tommie’s analysis and keep it close to hand. It briefly and brutally sums up the scale of the problem the party faces.

In fairness to the DUP, they didn’t expect Leave to win. As one of them put it to me during the campaign: “It’s a pretty safe bet for us. We shore up our own base, rattle Nesbitt and keep the TUV and Ukip on the fringes. But it’s unlikely Remain will lose, even if it is closer than Cameron expects.” I wonder if it was the same member who, according to Gorman, ‘had a four figure bet on a Remain victory’?

During the campaign – and I think most of you know that I was pro-Brexit – I did raise the issue of what would happen if the decision went in Leave’s favour: “Such an outcome would, inevitably, place the Union (here and in Scotland) at the forefront of politics. It would spook Sinn Fein, unsettle Dublin and, possibly most worryingly of all, cause problems for those small-u unionists and small-n nationalists who are quite happy with the multi-layered identities afforded by membership of the European Union.”

Well, that’s precisely the position we find ourselves in right now. It’s absurd for the DUP to criticise Leo Varadkar for playing the cards that circumstances have dealt him. That’s exactly what the DUP did in June, when circumstances placed them in the role of king-makers at Westminster. Of course the Irish government is worried. Imagine how the DUP would feel if Corbyn had won in June and they had no clout?

Instead of putting the boot into Varadkar the DUP needs to be talking to him. There are common interests between the South and the North; interests which are, in many ways, just as important – indeed, maybe more so – than the interests between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

There are three debates in play in Northern Ireland: Irish unity vs continuing partition; an independent UK vs the status quo ante of the EU; and special status vs all-or-nothing re the border. Unionists need to give serious consideration and responses to all three debates.