Alex Kane: DUP facing its greatest challenge since it was founded

Last year’s DUP conference was a reasonably upbeat occasion. The shock of the huge psychological blow of Sinn Fein running them to within one seat and 1,200 votes of being the largest party in the Assembly election (and, let’s not forget, it was also the first time that unionists didn’t have an overall majority in a local Assembly/Parliament) was offset by a snap general election which left them holding the balance of power at Westminster (as well as recording the largest ever vote for the party).

Arlene Foster was able to tell her audience, to thunderous applause: “Regardless of some of the propaganda the truth is the Union is secure and no matter how many times we are told ‘the North isn’t British’, Northern Ireland is British and British it will remain.

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

“I was motivated to enter public life precisely because of my desire to protect and preserve Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.”

During the same speech she spoke of Theresa May’s assurances that, when it came to the final Brexit deal, Northern Ireland would be treated in exactly the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom.

Yet within a couple of weeks of that speech Mrs Foster had to interrupt Mrs May’s lunch – she was in Brussels at the time – to warn her that the DUP would bring down her government if she didn’t change the text of a document she was presenting to EU negotiators.

In the last few days, Mrs Foster, along with a number of her MPs, has had to reissue those threats, because it looks as though Mrs May is prepared to consider an option in which Northern Ireland would be treated very, very differently to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Arlene Foster in relaxed mood at last year's DUP conference

Arlene Foster in relaxed mood at last year's DUP conference

Mrs Foster’s comments on Saturday were worryingly enlightening for the DUP: “Last week, I wrote to the prime minister outlining broad concerns about the direction of travel. This could be discerned from shifts in public comments, private engagements and what was being briefed in London, Dublin and Brussels. I wrote in the hope of reassurance and with the desire that an acceptable deal for us all was within grasp. Instead, I received confirmation that we were right to be concerned. If what is outlined in the reply is the type of deal the prime minister intends to conclude, then the DUP could not support a deal which annexes Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.”

This is not the sort of thing that you want to be saying to your de facto coalition partner so late in the negotiations. It’s not the sort of position that the DUP wants to find itself in two weeks from its annual conference. It’s certainly not the sort of thing that Mrs Foster – desperately in need of good news after the collapse of the talks process last February, the daily revelations from the RHI Inquiry and the damning conclusions of the Audit Office report about the handling of the SIF fund this week – wants to be fire-fighting. She’s already weak: she can’t withstand many more blows.

There is a bigger problem, of course. If it turns out that the DUP hasn’t been able to use its supposedly considerable influence with the Conservatives to address unionist concerns (and those concerns are shared across NI unionism) then it raises enormous problems for the relationship between NI unionism and the Conservatives; as well as the relationship between NI and the rest of the UK.

As UUP leader Robin Swann noted: “The time for DUP bluster and chest beating has long gone. Arlene Foster and the people around her need to explain what they are going to do about it now that it looks like the disastrous backstop might be part of the final agreement between the UK government and the EU.”

When asked if the DUP was now preparing to withdraw support from the prime minister, Sammy Wilson said: “Her letter signals her intention but her plan hasn’t been approved by the Cabinet. What we intend to do is continue to put pressure on those in the Cabinet who are sympathetic to us. We have made some headway there. We are also in constant contact with Tory backbenchers and I think that we have made a lot of ground there, so that adds more opposition to her plan.”

Hmm. Here’s the problem as I see it. Mrs May has, on at least three occasions, tied herself to positions which she knows will displease the DUP. She’s doing it again now.

I’m presuming that she has done the arithmetic within her own parliamentary party and reckons there aren’t the numbers to topple her. People like Johnson and Rees-Mogg have been brilliant at the soundbites and putdowns for the last 18 months, but haven’t gathered the numbers required for a coup to work in their favour.

What it comes down to is this: how many Conservative MPs will undermine or ditch their own prime minister in favour of the DUP?

As I pointed out about a year ago, this crunch point was always coming. The next few weeks will represent the greatest challenge to the DUP since it was founded in 1971. Mrs Foster’s leadership, along with the reputations of key DUP players in Westminster, are on the line. Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and even Mrs Foster have long claimed that the DUP’s brand of unionism was always preferable to the ‘weak,’ ‘rollover’ unionism of the UUP. Well, let’s see where the DUP and unionism stand in a few months time.

As it happens I think the PM will, ultimately, still be very wary about doing anything which could trigger the formal collapse of the United Kingdom. She has enough real and potential problems without adding that to the pile. As for the DUP: now is not the moment for the megaphone and public threats. You’re not as important as you like to think you are.