I wrote my first piece of analysis for the News Letter in August 1979: a piece about who might succeed Harry West as leader of the UUP (I thought James Molyneaux was likely to win – and he did). Anyway, to paraphrase Paul Webster, I’ve passed a lot of water under a lot of bridges in the last 40 years and I’m now rarely surprised by anything that happens in local politics. But I was surprised by something last week.
It was this: ‘This proposal would provide for the creation of an all-island regulatory zone on the island of Ireland, covering not just sanitary and phytosanitary and agri food rules but all goods ... The zone of regulatory compliance will mean that Northern Ireland will be, in significant sectors of its economy, governed by laws in which it has no say. That is clearly a significant democratic problem ... Our proposal is that, before the end of the transition period, and every four years afterwards, the UK will provide an opportunity for democratic consent to these arrangements in the NI Assembly and Executive ...’.
That’s from the ‘UK Proposals For An Amended Protocol On Ireland/Northern Ireland,’ Boris Johnson’s alternative to Theresa May’s backstop. I’m not in the least surprised that Johnson would have reckoned that this sort of gibberish – and it really is monumental gibberish – would be a runner; but I’m astonished that the DUP allowed itself to be sucked into his delusion.
It’s worse than the 2017 backstop (which, let’s not forget, both Johnson and the DUP dismissed out of hand; although Johnson was later to turn tail and vote for it). It’s not just a case of the DUP smudging a red line, either: it has actually triple-jumped so far over it that the line is now invisible to the naked eye.
Is there strategic logic to this shift? There are three possibilities. Maybe it is being done out of fear: Johnson has already betrayed the party and the key players may have concluded that it’s time for them to play the, ‘It’s not ideal, but it’s better than the alternative’ card. The alternative, of course, is that Johnson just panics and throws both the DUP and NI unionism generally to the wolves. He has no votes here and hopes to not need the DUP in a few weeks time.
It may just be farce for the optics. Foster and Dodds may think the deal will be rejected by the EU and are simply using a ‘pretend’ position to allow them to say, “But look, we were prepared to make concessions.” The trouble with making concessions, and setting them out in print, is that your opponents use them as the starting point for the next round of negotiations.
Or, maybe it’s just a good-old-fashioned DUP ruse; the hope being that the Assembly will miraculously return and they’ll have a built-in de facto border poll every four years which allows them to keep on playing the ‘Vote DUP ... or else’ game for a long, long time. They did exactly the same thing in 2007 when they ensured that it was always the largest party which would provide the first minister; and that has worked out very nicely for them. Mind you, the party would be really screwed if the EU accepted the deal, but the local parties still didn’t agree on rebooting the Assembly: for that would leave decisions being made in Westminster by a government which reckons it no longer has favours to repay.
But here’s the main thing – the only thing – to remember. The DUP has conceded both a key principle and red line. And Foster, Dodds and Donaldson didn’t look very comfortable in any of their media encounters last week. They know they are on the back foot. They know unionists – including many in their own party – will be similarly uncomfortable. But maybe they don’t actually care all that much, because they know, that when push comes to shove, a significant majority of unionists will bite their tongues and vote DUP rather than split the vote and hand an advantage to Sinn Fein.
When a party goes seriously, serially wrong, you have to look at the leader. I was no particular fan of Peter Robinson but I also know he would have avoided the present mess. He would have finessed the RHI problem in December 2016. He would have ensured there wasn’t an early Assembly election in 2017 (when unionists lost their majority for the first time). He wouldn’t have tied himself to the ERG strings and gone down the outrageously populist uber-unionist path pursued by Foster from July 2017.
He would have ensured that the Leave and Remain parties in NI would have kept a joint approach when dealing with the UK and Irish governments, as well as with the EU. He would have realised the scale of the problem on the morning of June 24, 2016 and prioritised the listening rather than the tin ear. Indeed, he would probably have ensured that the DUP’s approach to and during the referendum was much more cautious (he always liked a supply of available options).
Foster may believe that the electoral stats are in her favour: and maybe, in a certain light, they are. But self-interest isn’t enough at the moment. She has added to the problems of unionism rather than reducing them and often seems to prefer the sledgehammer to subtlety. The position the DUP finds itself in right now is an enormously difficult one (a difficulty that brings knock-on problems for local unionism), but many of the difficulties are of her making.
It has been obvious since June 24, 2016 (and I considered some of the potential problems during the referendum) that NI would be caught up in the tussle between the EU, UK and Irish government. The DUP made a catastrophic error of judgment in believing that a Conservative government would always be in their corner. We are all paying for that error. I’m happy to be proved wrong, but, as it stands, Arlene Foster’s legacy now looks like tactical error piled upon reckless stupidity.