Alex Kane: The DUP has been betrayed by its own stupidity as much as by the Tories

The DUP’s biggest mistake wasn’t supporting Brexit in 2016 (Leave would still have won): rather, it was the deluded uber-unionism it adopted and pushed from June 2017.

Monday, 19th April 2021, 1:00 pm

After a terrible Assembly election in March 2017 – when, for the first time ever, unionists lost their overall majority in a local assembly/parliament – the DUP got an unexpected break. Theresa May’s general election gamble left her dependent on its 10 votes and willing to cut a confidence and supply deal with the party in June.

I noted at the time it was the perfect moment for the DUP to recover the morale which had been shattered in March and present a new, progressive, thoughtful unionism for a national, Westminster and European audience.

It didn’t. It went bonkers. It got carried away with its own importance. Stupidly, it built a bizarre relationship with the European Reform Group, which only wanted the party for its votes. Most of the people involved in that group had no record of any particular interest in Northern Ireland, or in NI unionism generally, so I could never understand why the DUP imagined that, if it came to it, the ERG would prioritise unionist interests over a ‘clean break’ Brexit.

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Boris Johnson flanked by Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster at the DUP conference in November 2018

There’s not much evidence that the DUP built a meaningful relationship with the Labour, Lib-Dem or SNP parties. Fair enough, given the confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservatives, the channels and discussions with other Westminster parties might have had to be fairly discreet; but at least it could have provided the DUP with other options and routes when the constitutional excrement finally hit the fan.

When Theresa May announced her Withdrawal Agreement proposals on NI in November 2018 it caught the DUP on the hop. The very PM with whom the party had a confidence and supply arrangement hadn’t thought it necessary to give it advance warning. Why? What did it say about the nature of the relationship between the two parties from June 2017 to November 2018?

Here’s my response to events in my News Letter column on November 19, 2018: ‘My view is that the Withdrawal Agreement does not pose an immediate or an inevitable threat to the constitutional integrity of the UK. But when we consider the unexpected consequences of both the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements (NI ended up more polarised and the centre ground stood still) only a fool would assume that the Withdrawal Agreement couldn’t, albeit incrementally, lead to Irish unity. That’s the DUP’s biggest worry in all of this.

‘The DUP’s problems today are greater than they were this time last week. As are those of unionists generally. Anger and rhetoric will not solve these problems. If ever there was a time for clarity, certainty and cold-headed thinking from the leadership of unionism, it is right now. Don’t fear the worst. Don’t spook your support base. Don’t favour the rash statement over the considered strategy and suggestion. This is not the beginning of the end: so don’t act as though it were.’

But yet again the DUP ratcheted up the bonkers approach and threw all its eggs into the ERG basket. Boris Johnson was roared to the rafters at the DUP conference a week later, when he greeted the audience as his ‘fellow unionists’ and promised NI wouldn’t be reduced to ‘semi-colonial’ status while he was around. Within three months – March 29, 2019 – he shafted them by voting for May’s withdrawal agreement. Yet even this industrial scale hoodwinking didn’t persuade the DUP to dump a man who made Del Boy Trotter look like Machiavelli.

In October 2019, within months of his becoming prime minister, he threw the NI Protocol into the mix and re-shafted the DUP by calling an election ‘to get Brexit done’. He delivered the biggest Conservative majority since 1987. He didn’t give a damn about the DUP in June 2017. He didn’t give a damn about the DUP in March 2019. He didn’t give a damn about the DUP in December 2019. He doesn’t give a damn about the DUP right now.

The only difference now is that the DUP finally realises he doesn’t give a damn. Indeed, the penny finally dropped the day after the general election when someone from Conservative Central Office will have sent a message to the DUP paraphrasing the wonderful line from Frasier: “Copernicus called to say you’re no longer the centre of the universe.’

Along the way the DUP closed all the channels it needed to keep open, even though just about everyone was telling it the ERG and Johnson would betray it. All the links it had forged with the Leave campaign in 2016 and with assorted Leave lobby groups (concentrated in Tufton Street, near Westminster) thereafter, meant nothing, because their priority was English nationalism and a ‘leave means leave’ Brexit, rather than NI’s constitutional position.

The DUP’s fundamental error was to strengthen its links with a regenerated English nationalism (most of whom couldn’t name the DUP’s key players) rather than build relationships with a broader pan-UK base. Worse, the fate of NI unionism may now lie in the hands of that English nationalism, because it’s from there that Johnson won his majority.

I’ve said it before to the DUP and I’m saying it again: tread with enormous caution right now. Yes, you may have been betrayed. But your own stupidity at key moments made that betrayal a lot easier to pull off.

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Alistair Bushe