Lord Empey: Having Westminster to themselves bred complacency in the DUP

Unionism needs insurance against things going so wrong again. Having Ulster Unionist MPs back in the Commons will help reflect the views across unionism and not just the one-dimensional approach of the DUP
Unionism needs insurance against things going so wrong again. Having Ulster Unionist MPs back in the Commons will help reflect the views across unionism and not just the one-dimensional approach of the DUP
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This article first appeared this morning (Thursday) in the print edition, and was submitted for publication on Wednesday, before the split between the DUP and Boris Johnson’s government:

Since June 2017 only one unionist party has had representation in the House of Commons.

Lord Empey is a former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

Lord Empey is a former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

This was the democratic decision made in each constituency, but recent events will cause unionists to consider whether that was the best way forward for unionism.

However, putting all one’s eggs in one basket is always risky and so it has proved.

The Brexit process has now thrown up an extra challenge — how to see the results of the 2016 referendum implemented in a way that ensures that there will be no damage to the Union.

It will have come as a shock to many unionists to see the DUP row back on their promises never to allow a border in the Irish Sea.

Let us remind ourselves of what they actually said –On December 4 2017 Arlene Foster said ‘…Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom.

‘We will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates NI economically or politically from the rest of the UK.’

On December 8 2017 the DUP said: ‘Northern Ireland will not be separated constitutionally, politically, economically or regulatory from the rest of the United Kingdom….’

In both these statements, the word regulatory is used. What the DUP has now done with its support for the Johnson plan, is to accept that Northern Ireland will remain in the Single Market and for all practical purposes in the Customs Union as well, which means that we will be in a totally different regulatory and economic regime from Great Britain.

Brussels will determine the regulations of the Single Market and Northern Ireland will have to accept them.

To confirm his, I quote from the government’s own paper of October 2 2019, where it states in paragraph 4: ‘The proposal set out in this note would see regulatory checks applying between Great Britain and Northern Ireland …

This confirms that the DUP has done a massive U turn and that there will be a regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea. It’s there in black and white.

All of unionism was united in opposition to Theresa May’s EU Withdrawal Agreement because it contained the ‘backstop’ which could have left the UK unable to move out of the EU Single Market and Customs Union without the consent of all 27 remaining EU states.

This gave Dublin a veto over what the United Kingdom could and could not do in the future.

I never thought it possible that a proposal would emerge, supported by the DUP, which leaves Northern Ireland in a worse place than that proposed in the original Withdrawal Agreement. But it has.

What the prime minister’s proposal does is to create the first major cracks in the Union. Nicola Sturgeon is waiting to pounce in Scotland, as she sees opportunity for Scottish nationalism to exploit the new arrangements.

This prompted Lord William Hague, former Foreign Secretary and good friend of Northern Ireland, to say in his Daily Telegraph column on October 7: ‘They (the DUP) are on the verge of achieving the most rapid destruction of their own core objective in the whole history of political parties anywhere in the world. That objective is to keep Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom …’

I have no doubt that Arlene Foster and her colleagues are as keen to see the continuance of the Union as I am, but they have handled the Brexit process very badly.

They advocated leave, which is a legitimate objective, but clearly had no detailed plan as to how this was to be achieved.

The complications of a land border with the EU and the political dynamics of a region of the UK which voted to remain in the EU, required careful and skilful handling. This has been sadly lacking.

I do not believe that unionism would have ended up in this mess, with a border in the Irish Sea, if there were different unionist voices in the House of Commons.

The DUP having it all to themselves has bred complacency.

Even the confidence and supply arrangement, which has also done harm to our place in the Union by linking unionism with a financial ‘bung’, has shown its limitations.

Holding the balance of power rarely lasts long at Westminster.

If all this was working in the interests of unionism, why are we talking about a border in the Irish Sea, something that was never envisaged by those who support Brexit?

Larne will now be a frontier town, maybe with red and green customs channels when we get off the ferry!

It will feel like we are entering a different country. Awful.

Unionism needs an insurance policy against things going so badly wrong again.

Having Ulster Unionist MPs back in the Commons will ensure a balanced and coherent position that reflects the views across unionism and not just the one-dimensional approach of the DUP.

l Lord Empey is a former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party