Alex Kane: Unionism needs to know DUP thinking of no-deal

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What seems clear is that most people believe that the DUP supports a no-deal, new border, ‘hard’ Brexit.

I accept that Twitter isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of debate, but this recent tweet on my timeline (@AlexKane221b) is fairly typical of what has been said for a couple of years: ‘In the current climate a hard Brexit, hard border, tearing up GFA, torpedoing North/South cooperation, shackling NI to GB to ensure it is completely reliant on it financially/politically. I think that is the end goal for the DUP and it will play very well with their base.’

Boris Johnson attending the DUP's 2018 annual conference with party leader Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds

Boris Johnson attending the DUP's 2018 annual conference with party leader Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds

Writing over the weekend, SF’s Mary Lou McDonald claimed, ‘A no-deal crash Brexit will be hugely damaging to our politics, to our economy and to our society. It is in direct defiance of the clear cross-community majority here who want to see an agreement with the EU that protects interests on this side of the Irish Sea. Yet the DUP continues to refuse such an approach, preferring to wrap themselves in the Brexiteer flag as they march over the cliff edge of a catastrophic crash.’

In a press release a few days ago, after the DUP had supported Johnson, Robin Swann said, ‘The decision of the PM to prorogue is merely distracting from the fact we are edging ever closer towards leaving the EU without a deal. A no-deal Brexit would be a total disaster for NI.’ That’s a view reflected by four of the five main parties here.

My own view is that the DUP doesn’t and never has supported a no-deal, new-border exit. What would the party gain from such an outcome? What would NI unionism gain from such an outcome? The only clout the DUP has wielded since the Confidence and Supply deal has been in additional funding for NI; which has been important. But the deal with the Conservatives didn’t prevent Theresa May introducing the backstop to the equation; and nor did it prevent Boris Johnson voting for that backstop just a few weeks after assuring the DUP conference that he would never support it.

That backstop, introduced by May and voted for by Johnson, Rees-Mogg and a substantial majority of Conservative MPs, all of whom knew that the DUP opposed it, does raise particular problems for NI unionism. I have written about those problems many times before and won’t rehearse them, other than to say I think the DUP has always mishandled its response to the backstop since December 2017. What the party has done is convey the impression that getting rid of the backstop will always trump everything else, even if it meant a no-deal, new-border outcome. But it never really presented a coherent argument.

Most people, and that includes the vast majority in England, Scotland and Wales, have no idea why unionism here opposes the backstop. The bulk of commentary, including on platforms and in newspapers/magazines traditionally supportive of what might be described as pan-UK unionism, don’t fully understand the opposition, either. Which probably explains why, according to almost every opinion poll since January 2018, a majority of Conservative Party members, latterly the Brexit Party and various strands of English nationalism, indicate that the loss of Northern Ireland is an acceptable price to pay for Brexit.

If push came to shove I wonder how many DUP members, public representatives and voters would trust key figures in the Conservative and Brexit parties to prioritise the political/constitutional interests of unionists in Northern Ireland (where, let’s not forget, neither of the parties holds any seats) over and above the priority of leaving the EU on October 31, ‘come what may’? I’m not suggesting Johnson and Farage are already factoring in the loss or potential loss of Northern Ireland; but I do believe that if they had to make a choice between NI and leaving the EU without a deal they would opt for no-deal.

The DUP will still claim to have clout. And right now it is in negotiations for updating the Confidence and Supply arrangement. But Johnson doesn’t have a majority even with the 10 DUP MPs, so they have less cards to play. An election is inevitable within a matter of months and the DUP would be extraordinary lucky to find itself in the kingmaker role again. In the event of a pre-October 31 election (and the option has been war-gamed by his strategists) Johnson’s task, made more difficult by Farage,is to win a Conservative-only majority; and that is going to be very difficult if he tries to row back on no-deal for the sake of Northern Ireland.

Even though they would never admit it the DUP is well aware of the huge political/electoral/constitutional impact of a no-deal, new-border outcome. They know it would shift the dynamics even more than they were shifted on June 23, 2016 (referendum day), November/December 2017 (backstop comes into play) and June 26, 2018 (confidence and supply deal). They know, too, that a no-deal outcome, followed by an election in which they lost their kingmaker role (and possibly still no functioning Assembly) would place them in a very difficult, very weak position.

So, have they thought all this through? According to all of their critics they have thought it through and really do support the no-deal, new-border option. If that is the case then it strikes me as a remarkably ‘brave’ stance to adopt 18 months from Northern Ireland’s centenary.

But if, as I suspect, they genuinely don’t support this option then why continue with the down-to-the-wire impression that they do? Do they still believe everything will be all right on the night? Have they already factored in selling a backstop as ‘not our choice, but better than the alternatives’? Do they really think that no-deal presents no problems to them or to unionism generally? Have they war-gamed all of the possible outcomes? They have already been ‘betrayed’ by May and Johnson and a further ‘betrayal’ seems likely. It might help if unionism could now have sight of their game plan and thinking.