Dr David Shiels is a Policy Analyst at Open Europe and also works on contemporary political history.
It is not a happy time for the relationship between the Conservative Party and the DUP. The latter’s decision to abstain on a number of amendments to the Finance Bill and to vote for one Labour amendment on Monday was intended to send a ‘political message’ to the Government. The DUP has stopped short of formally withdrawing from the Confidence and Supply arrangement, but has arguably broken it. The party’s MPs make no secret of their desire to see a change in the Government’s direction – hence the declaration that the agreement is between parties, rather than between leaders. At a time when many Conservative MPs are in a rebellious mood, DUP MPs may feel that they have some leeway in terms of their commitments under that agreement anyway.
While the DUP’s opposition to the existing Withdrawal Agreement at Westminster is steadfast, the party is coming under increasing criticism for its attitude towards Brexit in Northern Ireland. Business leaders there have taken the almost unprecedented step of coming out against the party on a major policy issue, indicating their support for the Withdrawal Agreement. Importantly, the Ulster Farmers’ Union has also come out in support of the Agreement, whereas it had stopped short of taking a Remain position during the referendum in 2016. This is particularly significant, given the perception that many Unionist farmers privately supported Brexit.
After many months of saying as little as possible about specific arrangements for Northern Ireland, the Government also seems to have found its voice. Karen Bradley’s speech in Belfast on Monday – her first major intervention on Brexit – was a robust defence of the Agreement, and a signal that the Government is prepared to bypass the DUP and appeal directly to public opinion. If anything, the DUP is likely to harden its opposition to the Agreement in the coming weeks, but there is a growing sense that the party has been caught on the back foot over the issue. The Ulster Unionist Party leader, Robin Swann, has accused the DUP of being ‘asleep at the wheel’, and has suggested that the party has ‘failed in their primary duty to protect the integrity of the Union and its people.’
Meanwhile, the pro-Remain parties in Northern Ireland have put forward a convincing case in favour of special treatment for the region. Although Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats at Westminster, the party has claimed that they are standing up for their constituents where it matters – in Dublin and in Brussels. The Government’s preparedness to breach the DUP’s ‘red lines’ over the backstop helps Sinn Fein to make their point, which is that Northern Ireland’s MPs have little influence anyway.
At the same time, there are many other voices in academia, the media and business who argue that the DUP has been inconsistent in its opposition to special treatment for Northern Ireland – pointing to different rules on abortion, same sex marriage and a range of other issues. The argument that ‘Northern Ireland is different anyway’ is persuasive. By seeking to make any GB-NI checks as unobtrusive as possible, the EU has persuaded many that it has gone some way to meeting Unionist concerns. The view that the backstop offers Northern Ireland the ‘best of both worlds’ is widely held and, according to reported comments by the Prime Minister, the EU is concerned that the arrangements would give Northern Ireland a competitive advantage.
The Irish Government also insists that it is not seeking to open up the question of Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom – even though Unionists believe the backstop threatens to undermine Northern Ireland’s relationship with Great Britain within the United Kingdom. The latter’s objections to the backstop also revolve around the democratic and constitutional implications of Northern Ireland potentially being subject to EU rules in the longer-term, without the ability to amend or refuse them. This point has been hard to get across to audiences in Great Britain and there is a feeling that the party had taken for granted that its objections to the backstop would be understood.
There remains, of course, a possibility that the DUP’s opposition will see off the backstop, either now by helping to defeat the Withdrawal Agreement in Parliament or at a later date, during the negotiations on the future relationship. Although the party is unhappy with things as they stand, its persistence has at least ensured that some of the more objectionable aspects of the EU’s February proposal have been removed. There may yet be some way that the Government can secure further assurances for Northern Ireland, either in terms of beefed-up commitments to find a technological solution for the border, or by securing a role for the Northern Ireland Assembly as a democratic lock on the backstop. For the DUP, there remains the ‘nuclear option’ of triggering a confidence vote in the Government, or coming as near as they can to doing so in order to persuade Conservative MPs to change their leader.
It may be that the DUP will be proven right in the end – that influence at Westminster does matter and that Unionist objections to the backstop cannot be overridden. At the same time, it seems unlikely that Theresa May or any other Prime Minister could secure any fundamental changes to the backstop. Rather than going over the heads of the DUP and the other Unionist parties, the Government needs to find a way to address their concerns and bring them along as far as possible. This is necessary not just to deliver the Agreement through Parliament, but also because any deal that is seen as a defeat for Unionism will make it harder to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland. At this stage, too, DUP MPs need to think about what sort of arrangements they can live with, rather than re-opening the whole negotiation. They have grounds for complaint against the backstop as it stands, which remains objectionable from a Unionist point of view. But the alternative of No Deal would be extremely hard to defend in Northern Ireland, given the short-term consequences of such an outcome.