Sam McBride: A small band of DUP members always opposed Brexit, fearing for the Union

David Cather, left, and Tom Smith - the only publicly-declared DUP remainers
David Cather, left, and Tom Smith - the only publicly-declared DUP remainers

David Cather, a rank and file DUP member since his teens, remembers what pushed him to do what not a single other DUP member had done before the EU Referendum – to publicly question whether Brexit was a good thing.

Given the constitutional turmoil which has flowed from the referendum, it might seem startling that there was such apparently unthinking DUP acceptance of the benefits of Brexit, without consideration of the risks.

In truth, the party — at all levels, from unelected members up to some of its most senior figures — contained people who privately voted to remain and who in most cases have kept that information relatively quiet to this day. Their story shows the DUP to be more complex and more nuanced than is perceived to be the case.

Two days before the referendum, Mr Cather saw a DUP advert in the Metro newspaper. The 35-year-old data analyst, who was working in London at the time, had never before seen his party advertise in the publication — let alone spend what turned out to be £282,000 on an extraordinary four-page wraparound advert in the paper.

There was an obvious reason why the DUP had never before advertised in Metro — the free paper does not circulate in Northern Ireland and the DUP does not contest elections outside of Northern Ireland.

Though the story behind the advert was not fully understood at the time, it was immediately apparent that the DUP was becoming far more deeply involved in the Leave campaign than some of its members had initially expected.

At lunch time on the day of the Metro advert Mr Cather sat down to write a letter to the News Letter which was published the following day. Contending that unionism is “by definition an outward looking philosophy”, the letter said: “Unionism has from its earliest days, in the 19th century, argued that isolating ourselves on our island would condemn us to being an economic backwater. Carson and Craig rightly asked why we would want to sever links with the largest trading bloc in the world. Why indeed would we?”

It later emerged that the funding of the advert had involved the biggest political donation in the history of Northern Ireland, with the ultimate donor still shrouded in secrecy.

Not someone given to hyperbole, Mr Cather said that he was “a bit annoyed” when he saw the advert. Speaking to the News Letter this week, Mr Cather said that the main reason for him voting remain was that he thought Brexit “would be a bad economic move”.

Brexit had been “very popular with the [DUP] grassroots”, he said, and “the leadership seem to have decided it was a good issue on which to let the grassroots have a free hand”.

In common with all of the DUP remainers to whom this newspaper has spoken, Mr Cather readily accepted that “the party is predominantly in favour of leaving the EU” and that views such as his own are not representative of the party.

He suggested that leaving the EU’s political structures but “staying in a trading bloc with the EU” would be a sensible compromise “but hard remainers are pushing for a second referendum because they want to reverse the result entirely”.

But although the former chairman of South Belfast DUP association was the only party member to publicly oppose Brexit, a series of DUP figures across every level of the party voted to remain.

Tom Smith, a Bangor councillor, is the only other DUP member to have publicly said that they voted to remain. Like Mr Cather, Cllr Smith did so in a letter to the News Letter last September in which he said: “I voted to remain in the EU during the referendum but the British people spoke and said their desire was to leave. The will of the British people must be respected and upheld.”

His letter, which was a riposte to attempts to have Northern Ireland treated uniquely to the rest of the UK, concluded: “All unionists must stand together against this threat and make clear that we in Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.”

That comment underlined how even DUP remainers — and most unionist remainers from other parties — place any desire, whether passionate or pragmatic, to remain in the European Union second to their support for the Union.

There are other DUP members who will privately say that they voted to remain but are not yet prepared to be quoted, even without attribution.

And there are other senior DUP figures who have pointedly declined to say how they voted in the referendum, thus fuelling the idea that they probably did not vote for Brexit or they would be happy to say so.

Perhaps most significantly in that camp is Richard Bullick, a key aide to successive DUP leaders until the collapse of Stormont in 2017. Mr Bullick, who was a crucial strategic brain within the DUP and who played a central role in the modernisation of the party under Peter Robinson, was last year asked how he had voted.

During an interview with The University Times, the interviewer described him as “coy” on Brexit and the quotes attributed to Mr Bullick do not suggest him to be a buccaneering Brexiteer.

The article said: “He won’t tell me how he voted, but he admits Brexit complicated things in Northern Ireland...Bullick is clearly concerned.”

The article quoted the former adviser to Arlene Foster as saying: “The notion that a hard Brexit, in the sense of border posts, would be in a sense good for unionism, in my view is a fundamentally mistaken one. The last thing you want is to have people in mostly nationalist traditions I suppose, who are feeling entirely isolated or not comfortable in the country they live in.”

In the aftermath of the referendum, the DUP economy minister Simon Hamilton was asked 12 times in one interview if he would clarify how he voted but declined to do so.

Businessman Tom Kelly, who chaired the Remain campaign in Northern Ireland, said in 2016 that DUP figures who did not believe in Brexit should have come out and said so. The former SDLP vice chairman who would be well known to many senior DUP figures, said that he had spoken to “some very senior people within the DUP” who shared his view, including ministers.

Another DUP member who operated at a senior level in Stormont prior to the collapse of devolution, told the News Letter that he “never thought that the EU was a desperately pleasant organisation” and “it would have been better had we never joined” but he had pragmatically come to the view that Brexit could threaten the Union.

The DUP member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “It was the sense that the Union would be weakened...it was one of those ones where we’d got to 2016 and it was better the devil you know – there was just too much uncertainty and too much at risk to be quite so cavalier as the DUP turned out to be.”

He said that he now thinks the only realistic options are to remain in the EU or to leave without a deal.

However, he made clear that the backstop is “an absolutely unmitigated mess” which is no more attractive to him as a remainer than it is to his Brexiteer colleagues: “It creates a new legal entity called UK (NI). That is constitutionally unacceptable to anybody who’s a proper unionist. I can’t see how anyone who calls them self a unionist could endorse that.”

But he believes that no deal “weakens Northern Ireland [constitutionally] as much as the backstop weakens Northern Ireland”. There is, he said, “no comprehension” within the party about the harm which had been done to the Union as a result of Brexit.

When asked if there are many like him in the party, he said: “Us remainers are silent within the party. Not many put their head above the parapet.”

Mr Cather said that he cannot see how the UK can now get a deal with the EU which gets rid of the backstop and cautioned against the idea — supported by some pro-Brexit DUP figures — of a ‘time-limited backstop’: “That makes me nervous because what happens if you get to the end of two years [if it is limited to two years]....I don’t see how that extra time gets us to a solution. There just may not be an answer that satisfies both sides.”

Although it will baffle some onlookers, Mr Cather and the others referred to in this article remain DUP members.

With Brexit the biggest issue of our time and the DUP so fundamentally at odds with his own views, how can they remain?

Mr Cather said simply: “It’s possible to be in a party and disagree on one issue. Hopefully we get back to normal politics soon.”