The DUP reaction to the backstop will be central to fate of UK

Things are moving at Westminster towards some sort of agreement on the backstop.

Tuesday, 5th March 2019, 10:14 am
Updated Tuesday, 5th March 2019, 12:00 pm
News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

While eurosceptic MPs pretend that their position on the clause, to prevent a hard Irish border, has not changed, it patently has done.

What is unclear is the extent to which they are going to compromise. The government is clearly not even seeking to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, so the compromise will overwhelmingly have to come from Brexiteer Tories.

It is said that many pro Brexit Conservative MPs will be guided by the DUP’s response to events, which puts a heavy responsibilty on the party’s shoulders.

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After all, English MPs will conclude that if a Northern Ireland unionist party thinks it can live with a backstop, perhaps temporarily, then why should they continue to oppose it, and so risk the fall of the government or the thwarting of Brexit?

There are in fact other eurosceptic reasons to oppose the Withdrawal Agreement but the backstop is the main obstacle to its passage in the House of Commons. Thus the DUP’s reaction to any change is central to the fate of the whole UK.

Nigel Dodds’s comments to this newspaper today reveal definite movement on the part of the party of which he is the Westminster leader.

The DUP are prepared to accept a time-limited backstop on the basis that it would no longer be a backstop.

However, once a backstop is agreed, it is hard to see circumstances in which Ireland will ever allow a retreat from it, even if there is a theoretical exit route.

It will almost certainly be in practice much easier for Great Britain to escape. This could mean a future customs border in the Irish Sea, in addition to an early regulatory one.

An even more worrying scenario is that Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, will get from the EU a written assurance of dubious value and declares that his legal advice has changed, and the assurance is binding. In that case, as Mr Dodds says, no deal is better than a bad deal with lasting consequences.