Sam McBride: EU text would prompt huge constitutional change

There are significant risks for the DUP if unionism is unhappy with the final deal
There are significant risks for the DUP if unionism is unhappy with the final deal

The EU’s proposed Brexit agreement will have confirmed many unionists’ worst fears about December’s ambiguous and contradictory deal which allowed the two sides to reach this point.

Although this is the opening hand in a negotiation and is not going to be the exact text which emerges at the end of the process, there is at its heart a constitutional stumbling-block for unionists.

This text only comes into play if the other options on the table from December’s agreement fail and there are many in the DUP who hope that those alternatives – either a UK-wide trade deal with the EU or an agreement to ensure a high-tech soft border – will mean that the issue of regulatory alignment, which is what yesterday’s text spells out, does not even arise.

But some of the party’s MPs – among them Nigel Dodds, Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley – are ardent proponents of the entire UK leaving the customs union, making that option one which is likely to test the ability of a weakened Arlene Foster to tell her MPs how to vote.

Unionism’s opposition to yesterday’s proposals was striking for its unity, with the DUP, UUP and TUV singing off the same hymn sheet in rejecting as “insulting”, “disrespectful” and “malevolent” the Brussels text.

That opposition can hardly have surprised EU leaders, who have a diplomatic presence in Belfast and who even without that would have known from Dublin that the text would enrage the party propping up Theresa May.

At its heart, the unionist concern stems from the concept underpinning the proposals that it is more important to ensure that there is no manifestation of the Irish border at the Irish border than it is to ensure that there are no borders within the UK.

The document, with its proposal that Northern Ireland remain in the customs union even if the UK leaves, gives credence to one of the most ingrained unionist fears about how Brexit could unfold – the erection of some form of border between Northern Ireland and GB while no border at all exists between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

In all of this the DUP is vulnerable on two fronts: It argued for Brexit, despite being warned that such a stance could damage the Union; and it is in a position of unprecedented national influence at this moment, so cannot blame a treacherous British government over which it has no influence, as it did with the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Perhaps the most alarming long-term element of yesterday’s proposal for unionism was that Northern Ireland would automatically have to abide by EU rules as they evolve in years to come.

That creates not just the practical problem of being asked to abide by rules which we have no say in setting, but also potentially radical constitutional change. Under that scenario, if someone in the Province wanted to press their argument for or against some proposed new rule, although nominally they would be in a part of the UK, it would be the Irish government which they would have to ask to take up their case.