Friday 14 December 2018 9:41 am

So what does the DUP really, really want? A no-deal Brexit

“So tell me what you want, what you really, really want,” sang the Spice Girls in their debut single in June 1996, the same month that multi-party talks were established to kickstart the Irish peace process.

Now, 22 years later, it is a question that could well be asked of the DUP.

This week, all eyes have been on Theresa May: the brutal attempt to bring her down, which now sees her remain in office but without the support of a third of her party.

This has sparked more questions than it has answered. What does it mean for Brexit? Does a weakened May give more power to the Brexiteers or to those calling for a second referendum? And what does the leadership challenge mean for her withdrawal agreement?

But the power does not rest with May – it rests with the Northern Ireland unionist party whose 10 MPs have been propping up her government and are now quietly setting the agenda for the UK’s EU exit.

What do they want? It’s hard to tell, but let’s look at the options.

First, there’s the Prime Minister’s deal, widely slammed by MPs of all parties, which she has now gone back to Europe to renegotiate.

The DUP has been adamant: the deal is unacceptable, especially the contentious “backstop” that would see the UK bound into a tight customs arrangement with the EU, potentially indefinitely. According to the DUP, this essentially amounts to not leaving the EU at all, betraying the result of the referendum.

This is not up for debate. Just this week, leader Arlene Foster reiterated that the DUP could never vote for the deal with the backstop in place.

Nor will they be fooled by wooly assurances from the EU that the backstop is unlikely to ever come into force. On Wednesday, just before the leadership vote, Foster said in a statement: “We were not seeking assurances or promises. We wanted fundamental legal text changes.”


Fundamental legal text changes are not likely – not when the French President explicitly ruled them out just yesterday. And according to the EU, no backstop means no deal. Yet without DUP support, May has no chance of winning her parliamentary vote.

Getting the EU to agree to a UK-wide backstop at all was not easy. The aim was to appease a different DUP grievance: that there can be no Irish Sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

When, last December, May first conceded to the EU’s demand for some kind of backstop, guaranteeing a close customs arrangement to avoid a hard Irish border, the first idea was for this to apply only to Northern Ireland. But the DUP insisted that the region must not be treated differently to the rest of the UK (aside from same-sex marriage and abortion rights, of course).

Here’s Foster again, this time at the DUP conference in October: “We cannot have either a customs border or a regulatory border down the Irish Sea… We are not going to allow the UK to be broken up by Brussels or anybody else.”

So, no Irish Sea border and no backstop. What about a second referendum, given that Northern Ireland voted for Remain in 2016 by 56 per cent to 44 per cent?

Again, it’s a firm “no”. According to the DUP’s Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson, another vote would undermine future elections, spark further division in Britain, and weaken the UK’s negotiating hand.

In normal times, a minority government led by a crippled Prime Minister might be at risk of an election. Labour has certainly been calling for one. So if the DUP is so dissatisfied with May, is an election on the cards?

Absolutely not, at least not so long as Jeremy Corbyn is in charge. For all that Foster and her colleagues might be profoundly disillusioned with the Conservatives, the “Democratic Unionist Party” will not do anything that could lead to the election of a man who has spent years sympathising with Sinn Fein separatists and former IRA fighters.

And so we reach a stalemate, with only one option remaining for the DUP: no deal at all.

The trouble is that this would likely mean a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – which the DUP has also said that it does not want. But on this question it has not been quite so emphatic.

While businesses and politicians on all sides have warned that this is unthinkable, pointing out that trade between the Republic and Northern Ireland is almost six times more than between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and that a hard border could risk the stability of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the DUP doesn’t seem that worried.

Wilson has claimed that a no-deal Brexit is “probably inevitable”, while leaked emails in October revealed Foster admitting that it was the likeliest option, and that the DUP was preparing for it.

No-deal is probably the outcome which has the least support in parliament. But it doesn’t matter – because unless the Article 50 process is revoked or extended, crashing out of the EU without a deal is the default.

If MPs vote down May’s deal (which looks unavoidable), if the EU refuses to renegotiate (which looks certain), and if another referendum or election are off the table (which, without DUP support, they are), then a no-deal Brexit is inevitable.

Is that what the DUP really, really wants? And is the party willing to risk jeopardising a peace deal almost as old as the Spice Girls song to get it? Who can say. But unless Foster and her 10 MPs feel like backing down from the reddest of their red lines, that’s what they’re going to get. It’s just a shame that it’s what the country is going to get too.

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