Alex Kane: Bespoke deal may just get DUP off its Brexit hook

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Well, is the DUP serious about shifting from a position it has adopted since June 2017, when it signed the confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservatives?

It had already shifted from the position it had embraced with Sinn Fein in August 2016, when Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness wrote a joint letter to Theresa May making it clear they supported something resembling a bespoke Brexit solution: ‘We wish to reiterate our full commitment to achieving the best possible outcome for the people of NI. In this context we are reassured by your commitment that we will be fully involved and represented in the negotiations on the terms of our future relationships with the EU and other countries. We regard this as a fundamental prerequisite of a meaningful and inclusive negotiation process.’

Arlene Foster struck a remarkably conciliatory note in Dublin last week

Arlene Foster struck a remarkably conciliatory note in Dublin last week

The breakdown between SF and the DUP from December 2016 onwards ended this joint approach; and after June 2017 the DUP seemed more comfortable pursuing what I described as a new form of ‘uber-unionism,’ nestling in with Johnson, Rees-Mogg and the ERG and sounding increasingly belligerent about SF, the Irish government and the EU. But matters weren’t helped when Johnson and Rees-Mogg subsequently shafted it and voted for the Withdrawal Agreement and backstop in the face of continuing DUP opposition.

The DUP’s problem can be summed up quite simply. It doesn’t trust Boris Johnson not to throw it to the wolves for the sake of an exit deal: and it knows that a no-deal exit raises a raft of difficulties over which it will have little or no control. So, what does it do?

A series of news stories in the last fortnight suggests a shift by the DUP. According to a front page headline in The Times on September 13, the DUP has said it would ‘accept NI abiding by some EU rules after Brexit as part of a new deal to replace the Irish backstop. Significantly, the DUP has also said privately that it would drop its objection to regulatory checks in the Irish Sea (and) in return, Brussels would have to drop its insistence that NI remain in a customs union with the EU ... and agree to fast-track so-called alternative arrangements.’

Over the last few days Jeffrey Donaldson, Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson have used softer language than we’ve been used to hearing from the party. And speaking in Dublin a few days ago Arlene Foster also sounded remarkably conciliatory. Of course, none of this means that a deal will or can be reached before October 31, but it does confirm that the DUP is keen to secure a deal rather than be left to cope with the consequences of a no-deal: something I have been saying for the last 30 months.

The other thing which haunts the DUP is its fear that the vast majority of purist Brexiteers (those millions of voters who support the Johnson and Farage positions) don’t give a damn about the DUP or Northern Ireland. They wouldn’t necessarily gang-up to push us out of the United Kingdom, but nor would they fall over themselves to keep us in if the price of doing so was a softening of Brexit. The DUP wants to ensure that choice – between keeping NI or a clean-break from the EU – is never put front and centre. Most UK voters outside Northern Ireland would, if push comes to shove, be fairly easily persuaded that ‘dumping the Irish problem’ would be a perfectly acceptable consequence of Brexit.

Whether we have a reasonably soft Brexit landing in Northern Ireland (which I’ve always thought is more likely than not) or a hard/no-deal version, there are six particular consequences by which the DUP will measure the impact: economic, electoral, cross-community, north-south, constitutional (including the possibility of a border poll) and the Assembly. For example, if it does end up with the hard/no-deal version I’m pretty sure we could kiss goodbye to the Assembly once and for all. There would also be a probable knock-on input from those councils with nationalist majorities and very close relations with border and cross-border groups and businesses.

The loss of the Assembly and Executive would also rob the DUP of very considerable political clout. And while some elements of unionism would persuade themselves that direct rule was preferable to devolution I would advise them that direct rule has rarely done any favours for unionism since March 1972. Also, having rid itself of the EU I’m fairly sure no future Westminster government would be keen to take on the burden of a ‘difficult and problematic Northern Ireland’.

Speaking last week, Paschal Donohoe, the Republic’s finance minister said, “I understand the fears that some in the unionist community have expressed about the backstop. The government takes these concerns very seriously, as we do the concerns of everyone who is troubled by Brexit and its potential impacts on both parts of our island. However, the backstop should not be viewed as a challenge to unionism. Its purpose is to provide certainty to businesses and communities on both sides of the border that they will be able to continue to operate and go about their daily lives as they do today. Nothing more. It represents a compromise – it is not the status quo. It is not the same as Northern Ireland staying in the EU.”

Right from the start of the referendum campaign I argued that, in the event of Leave winning, a bespoke deal was possible. I still believe that’s the case. Let’s call it the laid-back stop option for want of a better term. It would have helped if Theresa May had discussed it with the DUP and other key players in Westminster before lobbing it into the mix: but we are where we are.

My own instinct is that no-one in the EU, London, Dublin or Belfast (although SF would shed few tears, I suppose) wants to provoke a constitutional crisis and the potential fall-out from it. A mutually acceptable ‘arrangement’ for our unique situation has always been possible and it looks to me that we might actually be close to agreeing it.