Dr David Shiels is a Policy Analyst at Open Europe and also works on contemporary political history.
Now that the Government has lost its majority in the House of Commons, the influence of the DUP has diminished. The fact that the Unionist party is no longer in a kingmaker position in Parliament has led to excited speculation about possible Brexit outcomes. Could Boris Johnson “ditch the DUP” and agree a Northern Ireland-only backstop? Could he force the party to accept a deal in the way that Theresa May could not?
Superficially, there are some incentives for the Prime Minister to find a path out of the EU for Great Britain alone, without the support of the DUP. The EU has said it would accept the original backstop, a solution which would see Northern Ireland alone remaining closely aligned to the EU while Great Britain diverges from it. Having boxed himself in with his commitment to the October deadline, and facing a hostile Commons, Johnson might well be tempted to take an off-the-shelf option in a last-ditch effort to save Brexit.
For now, however, the Prime Minister seems to have decided not to pursue this route. For a start, the chances of a deal on these terms getting through Parliament are slim. Without the support of the DUP, any Brexit deal will still meet resistance from the European Research Group, while Labour MPs would have little incentive to vote for a deal that gives Johnson the Brexit he wants. More importantly, the Prime Minister’s credibility would be at stake. Having made such an issue out of the “anti-democratic” nature of the backstop, he cannot realistically sell it as something which is acceptable for Northern Ireland alone.
Faced with these realities, the onus on the Johnson is to come up with something that is acceptable to the EU but also commands the confidence of the DUP.
For now, it seems that the DUP has given the Prime Minister the green light to explore a deal that is based on an all-Ireland agrifood zone. The EU itself believes that this falls short of what is needed, and that it fails to address the problem of Northern Ireland being in a different customs regime from the rest of Ireland. Persuading the Irish Government to back such a proposal is the greatest task for the UK. The risk is that, having conceded some ground on regulatory alignment, the EU will expect the British Government to move further without giving anything in return.
Ultimately, the key to any package is securing some movement from the EU in acknowledging a role for the Stormont Assembly. On this question, Johnson is on the strongest territory and his forceful defence of the consent principle in the Good Friday Agreement is apparently having an effect.
Throughout the Brexit negotiations, the DUP has stressed the importance of Paragraph 50 of the 2017 UK-EU Joint Report, which stated that any divergence between Great Britain and Northern Ireland would have to be subject to the consent of the Assembly. The EU has always seen this as a domestic UK commitment, but the DUP believed it should be recognised at the level of an internationally-binding Treaty. Anything short of that is unlikely to secure the party’s support, while the Irish Government is reluctant to agree to anything which amounts to a Unionist “veto.”
Will the DUP move in the end? To some extent, the party is tied into Boris Johnson’s project. The party helped to create the conditions for his victory in the Conservative Party’s leadership election, and there is no other Brexiteer leader waiting to come forward to negotiate a better deal. The only alternative to a Johnson-led Brexit is a Jeremy Corbyn-led Government, and this may lead to Brexit-with-a-backstop or to no Brexit at all.
Despite this, there are risks for the DUP in any Brexit outcome. Until now, Brexit has been good for the party and its opposition to the backstop is shared by a clear majority of Unionist voters. For as long as the party holds out for a better deal, it is on safe ground politically. The risk is that Johnson presents them with a deal which in theory meets their demands but exposes them to criticism from other Unionist parties. If a deal is not Brexity enough, the party will be open to criticism on the right. If it compromises too much on all-Ireland alignment, it will be criticised by the UUP. There is a risk that, having championed a Stormont lock, the DUP finds that it legitimises divergence from Great Britain to which the party is steadfastly opposed.
The worst-case scenario for the DUP is that any deal is less favourable to Unionists than the one agreed by Theresa May. Any hint of sell-out, and the party will struggle to sell the further compromises that are needed for a return to Stormont. This will have longer-term consequences for political stability in Northern Ireland.
In the end, the DUP may well prefer to hold out for a general election – and the likelihood of a Brexit delay – in the hope that something better turns up. But if the Prime Minister is able to come back with some concessions from the EU on a role for the Northern Ireland Assembly, the DUP should consider them seriously.