Dr David Shiels is a Policy Analyst at Open Europe and also works on contemporary political history.
Following last week’s European Council meeting in Salzburg, the question of the Irish backstop remains the major sticking point in the Brexit negotiations. Despite chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s efforts to ‘de-dramatise’ the issue, the two sides seem to be as far apart as ever. While Theresa May reaffirmed her opposition to the existing EU proposal (“it is something I will never agree to”), the European side seems determined to make Northern Ireland the price of a deal. The thinking is that, faced with a choice between no deal or a deal with a backstop, the UK will opt for the backstop.
From a British perspective, it seems absurd that Dublin could use its influence with the EU to drive the UK towards no deal – the surest way to a hard border. Ireland is becoming an issue in British politics in a way that it has not been for decades, with unhappy consequences for politics in Northern Ireland. The problem from May’s point of view seems to be in persuading her fellow heads of government that her objections to the backstop are genuine. The EU thinks that the British have got themselves into a muddle, and that they are now backing away from something which has already been agreed (although this is disputed by the British side). While the UK has pledged to come up with its own backstop proposal, possibly involving regulatory alignment with the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly, it remains to be seen whether this will be acceptable to the DUP, whose support May relies on in the Commons. There is certainly a case for saying that the backstop proposals should be put to the Northern Ireland Assembly, but the restoration of the Assembly itself is more difficult in the context of Brexit.
Meanwhile, the DUP is coming under increasing criticism from all quarters in Northern Ireland, and its influence over the Government is problematic. Speaking last weekend, Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Minister, warned that “we cannot allow one party to veto any proposals”, implying that the other parties in Northern Ireland would be able to find a solution to the backstop issue. The narrative has taken hold that the British Government is acting in bad faith where Northern Ireland is concerned. The DUP, however, is worried that they will be overruled by the British Parliament, which is precisely why they see Coveney’s words as a provocation. As Jeffrey Donaldson explained in a letter to the Belfast Newsletter: “This has echoes of 1985 when Dublin persuaded Margaret Thatcher to cut unionists out of negotiations on the Anglo-Irish Agreement which created enormous political problems and greater polarisation.”
Having attacked rivals in the past for being too close to a Tory Government, the DUP are now themselves vulnerable to the same charge. The Ulster Unionist Party, the DUP’s smaller rival, supported Remain in 2016 but are also opposed to the backstop. It is possible they would prefer a softer Brexit for the whole of the UK rather than a Northern Ireland-only solution. But the DUP also has critics on the pro-Brexit side, who are concerned that the Government has already conceded too much on the backstop. Further compromise would be difficult. Although fearful of a government led by Jeremy Corbyn, they would probably prefer to face the electorate rather than agree to the present backstop – and Labour could rescue the Unionists with a different negotiating position. An early general election triggered by the DUP is not impossible.
All of this puts May in a difficult position. She realises that Brexit has upset Irish Nationalists and wants to avoid a situation where it is necessary to hold a ‘border poll’ on Northern Ireland’s future. This is why she has made the commitment on the border in the first place. But she also understands why Northern Ireland remaining part of the customs territory of the EU is unacceptable to the pro-Union community.
Just because the province already differs from Great Britain in some ways does not mean that even more divergence is welcome or politically desirable. An arrangement imposed by the EU and Ireland is very different to one which is agreed internally between Westminster and the devolved administrations. There are many ways in which Northern Ireland is not different from the rest of the UK. It is not improper for the British Government to take a view on what has become a debate on the terms of membership of the UK, though it is likely that Parliament would agree to any settlement that had the support of all the parties in Northern Ireland. Were the Prime Minister to agree to the backstop as it currently stands, she risks undermining the Unionist credentials of her own party. She probably realises how poisonous this issue could become.
In the end, it is unlikely that the Unionist case will win much sympathy in Ireland or the rest of the EU. Even in Great Britain the DUP is widely disliked and the Unionist case is not understood. Many believe that the DUP has brought problems on itself by supporting Brexit in the first place. There is an argument that the party is inconsistent in demanding separate treatment for Northern Ireland in some areas but refusing to agree to them on customs and regulations. But iut is important to remember that the DUP’s share of the vote went up at the 2017 General Election, and retreating from its hard Brexit position would be difficult. Forcing its hand on the backstop could make it even harder to find a way back to power-sharing in Northern Ireland. The DUP can’t veto a Brexit deal, but their concerns can’t be ignored. Unless there is compromise from the European side, then no deal seems the likeliest outcome.