Theresa May’s pact with the DUP has seen constitutional principle overtaken by electoral contingency and political expediency. On 26th June 2017, the spirit and, some have argued, even the letter of the Good Friday Agreement were undone by the Prime Minister with the stroke of a pen and not a moment’s hesitation. And it has brought the Northern Irish margin into the political centre in a manner not seen since IRA bombs in England focused minds on finding a resolution to the dirty little war across the Irish Sea, the history and legacies of which a majority on the ‘mainland’ remain comfortably ignorant. Neither the Union’s constitutional architecture nor its political culture are designed to accommodate this centripetal motion, and there is speculation that the Prime Minister may yet seek to stab her DUP allies in back to service the needs of an English nationalism which has little real understanding of (and even littler regard for) the hopes, fears and idiosyncrasies of its provincial fellow travellers.
The DUP’s torpedoing of the first draft of the Joint Agreement between the UK government and EU27 in December has therefore been described as both the peak and inevitable limit of their power. Some have suggested that after this flexing of the party’s muscles, the way has been cleared to the softer Brexit (at least for Northern Ireland) which its more ‘sensible’ members recognise as inevitable. It is alleged that there are some – whose business-friendly heads rule their historically Eurosceptic hearts – who may even prefer this option. In my experience (and I am not alone in claiming this) however, the suggested divergence in thinking on Brexit between two wings of the party – one softer and with its locus in Belfast; the other more hard-line and with its powerbase in Westminster – is not as stark or significant as those hoping for a soft Brexit might wish. Unlike within Theresa May’s own party there is, it seems, a remarkable unanimity of opinion on Brexit within the DUP, which sees it not as representing a divergence between economic self-interest and the demands of identity, but of a marriage between them.
While members of the party are aware that it is only a highly unlikely parliamentary arithmetic that allows them to wield a veto over any attempt to create a ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland after Brexit (other, of course, than on marriage equality, bodily autonomy for people who are or can be pregnant, corporation tax and the myriad other areas in which Northern Ireland diverges from the rest of the UK on the DUP’s terms) there is an overwhelming sense that, caught between Corbyn and her own back-benches, an embattled Theresa May continues to need the DUP more than the DUP need her. The party’s base has been buoyed by the £1bn of extra funding secured for Northern Ireland by hard-nosed DUP negotiators and a sense that Brexit (for which, it should be remembered, an overwhelming majority of them voted) is not – as I have become used to thinking of it – a risk, but an opportunity. At the very least, former DUP Minister Nelson McCausland’s pronouncement that he “wouldn’t care” what happened to Northern Ireland’s economy, society or its border with the Republic as long as it happens outside of the EU, is widely shared.
And in this, the DUP is, I think, more than broadly representative of wider Unionist opinion in Northern Ireland. While the third of Unionists who voted Remain, and this interesting poll conducted by Queen’s University Belfast’s John Garry and John Coakley (whose finding that a majority of Unionists would be open to a new East-West border arrangement between Northern Ireland and Great Britain after Brexit I find to be increasingly questionable) have provided some succour to those whose preferred outcome is as soft a Brexit in Northern Ireland and as invisible an Irish border as possible, I see little evidence of divergence within wider Unionism from the position adopted by the DUP, including among the minority of Unionists who voted Remain. Despite claims that the party favours a softer Brexit, the DUP’s is a relatively hard-line position. If the UK is to remain in the customs union (which, as an aside, is not sufficient to secure a soft border on the island of Ireland), it will not be at the behest of the DUP. And if it comes to a choice between the hardest of hard borders on the island of Ireland and even modest (further) regulatory divergence across the Irish Sea, I believe Unionists will overwhelmingly support the DUP in insisting on the former.
The Tory-DUP deal has reinforced what Brexit already was in Northern Ireland: a restatement of British sovereignty in and over the province, and a repudiation of the Good Friday Agreement’s experiments in fuzzy borders and hybrid citizenship. In bringing the war beneath Northern Ireland’s peace from the periphery into the constitutional centre, Theresa May has subjected the peace agreement and its institutions – already largely disliked by Unionists and facing mounting challenges to their endurability – to a full-frontal assault which they may not survive, and galvanised – in a way which will be difficult if not impossible to undo – a politics which sees a hard Brexit as synonymous with defending the integrity of the Union and Northern Ireland’s place within it. Whether or not she eventually tries to close it again, the Prime Minister has opened a Pandora’s box, unleashing, like her predecessor in Number 10, demons of which she knew not.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. It first appeared at the Centre on Constitutional Change blog.
Jonathan Evershed is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Government and Politics, University College Cork, where his work on the ESRC-funded project ‘Brexit between Two Unions’ explores the consequences of Brexit for political relationships within and between Northern Ireland, Ireland and Great Britain. He has a background in political anthropology, and completed his PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University Belfast, where he is currently a Visiting Research Fellow. His research has examined the politics and culture of Ulster Loyalism during the present ‘Decade of Centenaries.