Are the DUP preparing to fold on the backstop – provided it’s called something else?

The Irish Government have confirmed that they are engaged in “secret Brexit talks” with London, today’s Daily Mail reports, amidst mounting speculation that a deal might yet be struck.

Simon Coveney, the Irish deputy prime minister, put this on the record as other EU leaders, led by Finland, revived the prospect of a no-deal exit at the end of next month by threatening to veto a further extension of the negotiations.

At the same time, the Democratic Unionists have fuelled fresh speculation that they are softening their opposition to Northern Ireland-only solutions to the challenges posed by the Irish border. Having previously insisted that the Province must depart on exactly the same terms as the mainland, Arlene Foster is now saying that the DUP will merely oppose anything which challenges Ulster’s ‘constitutional status’ inside the UK.

Such vague language could cover all manner of sins. Whilst it is almost certain that any deal reached won’t be called the backstop – the EU would need to make any retreat by Foster or Johnson look like a victory so they could sell it – we may yet see the Government fold on what has been the biggest sticking point to passing the Withdrawal Agreement.

Meanwhile Stephen Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, has urged Brussels to “take risks” and abandon its “rigid” approach to the border issue in a speech today.

Yet it hasn’t all been good news for Irish nationalism this week. A new study by two “top Irish economists” has concluded that any annexation of Northern Ireland by the Republic could be economically catastrophic. The Sun reports that: “a 32 county Ireland would cause a complete collapse of the Northern Ireland economy and hammer the standard of living in the Republic.”

This fits with earlier analysis by Irish legislators which suggested ‘unification’ would only be economically viable if the UK continued to pay its full present-day subsidy to Northern Ireland to the Republic for three decades after the event. As one self-aware Irish commentator put it at the time: “This could be a hard one to sell to the British.”

Meanwhile the Prime Minister continues to be enthusiastic about building a road and rail bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland – a suitably Johnsonian grand projet which would make a big statement on the Union, deepen the Province’s physical link to the mainland, and could reportedly be done for much less than the cost of HS2’s London to Birmingham section.

Poll suggests SNP still have a mountain to climb

Nor has Scottish nationalism had a great week. After a flurry of priors-finally-confirmed excitement in recent weeks about a couple of polls showing support for independence at near-level pegging with opposition, this week saw the publication of a new poll showing that six-in-ten Scots back staying in the UK.

Even worse for Nicola Sturgeon, fewer than one in three support her policy of staging a re-run of the 2014 referendum within the next 18 months. More remarkably still:

“More than a third (36 per cent) of Yes voters in the 2014 vote now want to stay in the UK, the poll said, with protecting public services, Brexit and Ms Sturgeon’s performance as First Minister cited as the most important reasons behind their change of heart.”

This ought to serve as a welcome antidote to unionism’s omnipresent fatalism, a feature of which is the tendency to assume that a voter lost once is lost forever.

One feature highlighted by the poll is the importance of the question – a lesson well-learned by Brexiteers in 2016. Whilst in 2014 David Cameron’s policy was to make maximal concessions to the Nationalists in the hope of giving them no space to wriggle out of defeat (a policy he entirely undercut with ‘The Vow’), this time the pro-UK side appear completely alive to the importance of this particular battle.

It is therefore significant that the Electoral Commission have this week publicly slapped down Mike Russell, the SNP’s constitution secretary, for suggesting that the Scottish Government has the right to unilaterally decide what question gets put to the electorate in any second vote.

The SNP are understandably keen to lock in 2014’s question, which allowed them to run a campaign based on a naturally positive ‘Yes’ frame. ‘Yes’ has since become part of the separatist identity, and it’s loss in favour of a fairer question would be a palpable blow.

(Unionists ought also to ensure that the question references both what Scotland stands to lose as well as again, so ‘..leave the United Kingdom and become an independent country’ rather than merely ‘…become an independent country’, and so on.)

Meanwhile David Cameron has revealed in his new memoir that he asked the Queen to make her famous intervention in the closing stretch of the 2014 referendum. The former Prime Minister says he asked if Her Majesty could “raise an eyebrow” at the prospect of independence.


A few pieces of relevant comment which stood out for me this week:

  • I contributed to Bright Blue’s new series on Johnson’s next steps to set out what the new ‘Minister for the Union’ needs to do to make good on his title.
  • Lord Trimble wrote on this very site about why the backstop breaches the terms of the Belfast Agreement. He ought to know, as he won the Nobel Prize for negotiating the latter.
  • Stephen Daisley has a great piece at the Spectator about taking a tough new line to curb Scottish nationalism. Attracted a vicious, vacuous, and now-deleted response from Alex Massie.