I can understand why unionists – irrespective of how they voted in the EU referendum – are angry. I can also understand – although I don’t agree with it – their desire to vent that anger at both Dublin and Brussels.
But here is the reality they need to be aware of: Dublin and Brussels are doing exactly what I would expect them to do. They are doing what we would do if the roles were reversed.
The EU 27 are putting their collective, broader interests first. We may call it ‘punishment’; they call it promoting and protecting their own interests (and I haven’t noticed any of the 27 governments arguing in favour of the UK being given an easy-ride exit).
The Irish government is also protecting its own interests, along with those of nationalists in NI. That has been its role (recognised by successive UK governments) since October 1972; and that role was a key part of both the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements. We knew this at the time of the referendum and nothing has changed since then.
Unionists in Northern Ireland haven’t been shafted by Leo Varadkar. And he isn’t on a land-grab, either, although it suits some elements of unionism to pretend that he is. Let’s be honest, he has enough problems with Brexit and the impact of an eventual deal, without playing the unity card. He’s not stupid. He doesn’t want to deal with a few hundred thousand angry unionists anytime soon. Also, if any other part of the UK had a land border with the EU then Brussels would be responding in exactly the same way. But Newry is not Leeds and Londonderry is not Manchester: the Brexit impact was always going to be different for those places closest to the dividing lines between the EU and the UK. Refusing to acknowledge and address that reality is stupid.
The real dilemma for unionists, of course, is that they have been shafted by the UK government. In the particular case of the DUP they were shafted by the prime minister they have been propping up for 18 months. The present concerns about the constitutional integrity of the UK and NI’s status within it are the work of Mrs May and the majority of her Cabinet and parliamentary party who seem to support her Withdrawal Agreement. She put the option on the table and she kept it there. So blaming Dublin and Brussels is pointless. Fine, get angry; but get angry with the right people.
The Withdrawal Agreement will probably not pass tomorrow (at this point we can’t even be sure that there will be a vote). That will give the DUP a reason to cheer, but they have no guarantee that either May or her successor wouldn’t still try to get through a renegotiated agreement that keeps the backstop option for NI. And while some in the DUP seem to think that a ‘no deal’ option is a runner I remain to be convinced that the people who have made such a collective dog’s dinner over the past 30 months could, in fact, rise to the huge, uncharted-territory challenges of a no deal.
There were always going to be consequences and prices for leaving the EU. I accepted that. But the referendum choice was straightforward: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ The promise from David Cameron, on behalf of the government, was that he would ‘implement the will of the people’. The problem is that he had no intention of implementing a Leave majority – and so he scarpered.
And nor was there a majority in the Commons for implementing the vote. That remained the case after the 2017 general election. There is no majority in favour of a clean break from the EU. The only way there would be a clean break deal is if another election delivered a very substantial majority in favour of such a deal. That’s not happening. It also seems very unlikely to me that a majority could be mustered for a no deal exit.
I noted at the conclusion of last week’s column that it looked to me as if we’d ended up where I always thought we’d end up – torn between the granny-flat option and a second referendum (favoured by those who believe – although I don’t share their certainty – that Remain would win this time). Ironically, that may give the DUP an opportunity to rethink their tactics.
On June 24, 2016 they found themselves in a place they didn’t expect to be and in a hole they didn’t expect to be. And when you find yourself in such a place and in such a hole you don’t dig, you don’t make absurd demands, you don’t put your trust in people with a record for unreliability and you don’t cut your wrists and talk about ‘blood red lines’.
Northern Ireland’s position in the UK doesn’t depend on Theresa May, let alone on hand-me-down Bonar Law caricatures like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. It depends on sustaining a majority in NI which will not, when a border poll comes (as it surely will), vote for Irish unity over membership of the UK. As I argued in the summer of 2016, that meant the DUP (along with the other parties here) making common cause in pursuit of the best deal for NI: and it also meant them talking to counterparts in London, Edinburgh, Dublin and Brussels.
The collapse of the Executive and the DUP’s confidence and supply deal made that common cause approach more difficult – but certainly not impossible. The DUP does not speak for NI on this issue and, deep down, I’m pretty sure that the DUP knows that their present strategy isn’t working. There is still common cause to be made in NI across a range of parties, organisations, interests and concerns. It’s not too late to see what can be salvaged from the ongoing dog’s dinner. At times like this realists are more useful than purists.