It’s going to be a very interesting four months for the DUP; and by interesting I mean outcomes that could fall anywhere between political/electoral catastrophe or, as they used to say in the old Saturday-morning cliff-hanging film serials, ending in a “one leap and they were free and safe” resolution.
There are a number of run-of-the-mill problems in the political undergrowth and within the party itself (where there are obvious tensions between the Free Presbyterian wing of the grassroots and a ‘liberal’ core at the centre), but they are probably manageable.
There has been no sign of an exodus of members or elected representatives over Alison Bennington’s selection as the party’s first openly gay councillor and I suspect that particular storm has been weathered; not least because she won.
Other problems will not so easily be resolved, the primary four being Brexit, an Assembly deal, a possible general election and the RHI report.
I’ve said before that the DUP never actually prepared for a Leave victory; so they never foresaw (or thought very much about) a backstop conundrum which raised constitutional difficulties for unionism. In fairness to them Theresa May didn’t really bother discussing her ‘solution’ with key players in Belfast, London or Dublin before offering it to the EU’s negotiators. It now looks like Boris Johnson will be prime minister fairly soon and one thing the DUP has learned about Johnson is that he is congenitally, psychologically untrustworthy. They would have preferred Gove, if only because they reckon he has more unionist instincts than Boris. But, barring a miracle, that’s not to be.
And, despite what many people in Northern Ireland think, the DUP does not want a no-deal outcome. The knock-on impact on the political dynamics here, on North-South relations and between the UK and Irish governments could make political life extraordinarily difficult for the DUP.
A no deal would still require a UK government to prioritise a softer landing for Northern Ireland, fearful that the entire peace/political process would collapse.
When the DUP reached their confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservatives in June 2017 I warned them not to put too much faith in purist Brexiteers like Johnson and Rees-Mogg; and I also suggested that they should ensure that the other local parties (SF, SDLP, UUP and Alliance) were kept in the loop about finding a solution to the ‘Northern Ireland problem’.
The DUP chose a solo run. Theresa May let them down. Johnson and Rees-Mogg (along with other ERG members) let them down. They created a situation in which tens of thousands of unionists opted for Alliance. They have closed doors in Dublin, London, Belfast and Brussels which should and could have been kept open. And now they’re facing the prospect of a prime minister who has proven his unreliability many, many times.
It is also possible that Johnson will opt for an early election. The parliamentary arithmetic isn’t in his favour and he won’t be keen to take huge risks on a wing and a prayer. Look how quickly he shifted from campaigning against the Withdrawal Agreement to voting for it – even though he knew the problems it raised for the DUP. How strong would their bargaining position be if, after an early election (not a given, of course, but a distinct possibility) Johnson didn’t require their votes?
The talks process is another headache for them. One senior DUP member admitted to me that it would ‘probably be better to secure a deal now’ because it could be harder to cut one if an election ‘deprives us of the role we presently have in Westminster’.
Another DUP MLA told me he sensed, even among his supporters at constituency level, that ‘they want to see local people making decisions again’. Crucially, he added: “I also think there are worries about Brexit that weren’t there a year ago.” Personally, I don’t see any evidence of unionists (and that includes the DUP and UUP) being any keener to accept a standalone Irish language act; which means, assuming Sinn Fein don’t budge, that a deal is unlikely. And that, in turn, raises the question of how long a mothballed Assembly can be allowed to remain funded?
Of course, the shadow of RHI hangs over everything. Apparently it is due to be published in September and it seems certain that the DUP – ministers and Spads – will not emerge well. What needs to be avoided is a situation in which a deal is struck (unlikely though that may be) and, shortly afterwards, following a damaging RHI report, questions are raised about Foster’s suitability as first minister. Both the DUP and SF need a set-in-stone solution rather than risk yet another collapse; so maybe they’ll be looking at some form of words to cover the problem. Or maybe they’ll just not do the deal at all.
So, here’s the nightmare scenario for the DUP: a no-deal Brexit/or Johnson forcing through the backstop in its present form (to get a deal through); an early general election depriving them of their kingmaker role; another collapse of a talks process (raising questions about keeping the present Assembly in any form); and a hugely damaging RHI report necessitating the rolling of heads.
None of this is inevitable. But the DUP will be looking at all of the possible outcomes. In the same way that they didn’t prepare for Leave they didn’t prepare for Brexit negotiations dragging on for three years; they didn’t prepare for serial betrayal from the party they have been propping up in government since June 2017; and they didn’t prepare for the loss of a unionist MEP and for Johnson as prime minister.
But, as I said, it’s going to be a very interesting four months. Anything and everything is possible.