Alex Kane: DUP is right to be embarrassed and worried about future of the Union

Boris Johnson with Arlene Foster after a meeting in Stormont earlier this month
Boris Johnson with Arlene Foster after a meeting in Stormont earlier this month
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The DUP would never put its fear into words , let alone put those words into the public domain; but it is now worried about the future of the Union. Very worried indeed.

It knows that Boris Johnson ‘betrayed’ it when he supported Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement (plus backstop) in March, having assured its annual conference in Belfast three months earlier he could never support the ‘vassalage’ document. Key players admit that ‘betrayal comes easy to him’.

Johnson, they hope, will still want their 10 votes when he wins. But he has two other audiences. The 160,000 members of the Conservative Party and the few million voters who shifted to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

The problem for the DUP is those audiences don’t really care about Northern Ireland, pan-UK unionism, or the DUP. Johnson treats Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds to his well-rehearsed mantra about personal commitment to the Union, but I’m pretty sure it is outweighed by his commitment to his own ego and prime ministerial ambitions. Keeping the DUP happy is nowhere near as important as keeping his own members and Brexit Party supporters happy.

Which raises another problem for the DUP. A recent opinion poll indicates a substantial majority of Conservative members – the people who ensured Johnson made it to Number 10 – believe that letting NI go is a price worth paying for Brexit. Other polls over the last two years suggest an equally substantial majority of Brexit supporters across England also believe that letting NI go is a price they’d happily pay. You can see their argument: NI voted Remain; it needs subsidised by the UK Exchequer; getting rid of it solves the ‘border problem’ and makes Brexit easier.

That said, what PM wants to begin their Downing Street tenure by pursuing a strategy which breaks-up the United Kingdom, leaving them PM of a psychologically/politically/physically diminished area which would be neither the UK nor even Great Britain? An independent Scotland to the north, a united Ireland to the west and the rest of the EU to the south. That’s a lot of new borders and problems to deal with.

On March 29, possibly sensing that a ‘hard’ Brexit was increasingly likely, Nigel Dodds said: “I would stay in the EU and remain, rather than risk Northern Ireland’s position. That’s how strongly I feel about the Union.”

With the prospect of Johnson as PM, Arlene Foster returned to the issue a few weeks later in Margaret Thatcher’s former constituency in Finchley: “As leader of the DUP I have made clear that the protection of the Union of the United Kingdom is more important than any other political aspiration or cause which we may be focused on at a particular time. I would not put forward any cause which I believed would result in a weakening of the Union, but we must always be cautious of how we move forward. We should resist the temptation to pitch one region against another. We should resist the temptation to view the relationship between various parts of our United Kingdom as give or take.”

The DUP recognises that Johnson – determined to woo the 83% of Conservative members who support a ‘hard’ Brexit or no deal; while winning back the millions who have drifted to the Brexit Party – could be pulled in a direction which threatens Northern Ireland. Conservatives account for less than 1% of votes in NI and have no elected representatives; meaning that Johnson has no ‘selfish, strategic’ interest in the place. If he wants to win a general election he can’t risk a chasm between his policy and the millions of Brexit (hard and no deal) voters across England.

Jeremy Hunt acknowledged that he and Conservative members were “passionate about our precious Union but frustrated that Brexit had not been achieved”. When asked which issue took priority for him, he replied, “The Union every time.” That response is much closer to the DUP position than Johnson’s; but since Hunt isn’t going to be prime minister on Wednesday morning what he thinks doesn’t actually amount to a hill of beans.

Leaving the EU need never have been an existential threat to the UK. It became one because of dithering and division at Westminster and the constant, relentless efforts of those who seemed intent on thwarting it. What that did – as some of us predicted – was play directly into the hands of Johnson and Farage. The DUP didn’t help matters. It put too much trust in the competence and loyalty of Johnson and Rees-Mogg, instead of also working closely with the Irish government and the NI parties representing the Remain majority.

There was no point, either, in blaming the Irish government for ‘playing games’ when it looked to both that government and the Remain parties in NI that the DUP prioritised a ‘hard’ Brexit and, if necessary, a deteriorating relationship with the Republic.

Foster and Dodds – even if they won’t say it out loud – are well aware of the huge damage that a no-deal exit would do to the constitutional/geographical integrity of the United Kingdom as we now know it. They will be spooked by recent chatter (although it is no more than that at the moment) about a referendum in NI to allow voters to make the call on a backstop. Add into that mix possible Westminster-driven changes to abortion and same-sex-marriage legislation here and you can understand why key players in the party are worried.

Anyway, the DUP has a lot of problems. It will have an even bigger problem if Johnson – which I think is likely – opts for an election to get the mandate he needs to push his policy through the Commons. Given the febrile nature of politics, particularly in England, who would rule out a majority built around a Johnson/Farage coalition? That would be a nightmare for the DUP and unionism; and they know it.

Here’s the ultimate irony: it is the Conservative and Unionist Party and government which now poses the greatest threat to the Union. That’s a hugely embarrassing dilemma for the DUP and it must find a way of resolving it. And quickly.