The exchanges between Boris Johnson and the DUP in the House of Commons on Saturday were short and terse, but they struck a loud death knell for the relationship of convenience that had existed between them.
DUP MPs ranted and raved with all the exasperation of a party that believed they hadn’t brought this on themselves.
The word “betrayal” hung in the air, and other words sprung to mind too:
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“What a fool I was! I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power.”
This was not the cry of Arlene Foster after reading Boris Johnson’s new Brexit deal, but rather from a 1921 speech by Edward Carson, the grandfather of unionism. His party members were once again propping up Tory votes, only for the coalition government to oversee the partition of Ireland. Over the past century, despite their allegiance to Britain, Northern Ireland’s unionists have often feared another betrayal of British politicians.
They were right to worry. In 1985, the DUP led unionist outrage after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave Dublin a say in the running of Northern Ireland. The party leader Ian Paisley blasted Margaret Thatcher as a traitor, and oversaw the burning of her effigy. In a letter, he told her, “You have prepared Ulster Unionists for sacrifice on the altar of political expediency.”
When the DUP threw their support behind the Brexit campaign in 2016 – in keeping with their lifelong opposition to the EU – they were setting themselves up for another Great British disappointment. Many in Northern Ireland, including the majority who backed remaining in the EU, warned the DUP that this could only end badly for the region, and the union. They didn’t listen.
In June 2017, as the DUP walked up Downing Street to secure their confidence and supply deal with Theresa May, they were being led down the garden path. In exchange for propping up the Conservatives, they were handsomely rewarded with £1 billion. But their hubris led them to believe that they could also steer the government towards a Brexit of their own liking.
When it became clear that Northern Ireland’s special circumstances were preventing Britain from achieving the Brexit which most leavers envisaged, it was inevitable that Northern Ireland would have to be treated differently. As people on all sides (the DUP included) rejected a border on the island of Ireland, quite simply, there would have to be some sort of a border in the Irish Sea.
Theresa May claimed she couldn’t accept this, and opted for a deal which put all of the UK in a backstop, rather than just Northern Ireland. At this point, with the prospect of the entire UK leaving as one, the DUP should have counted their blessings. But instead, they overplayed their hand, pushing for a harder Brexit which could not be delivered without Northern Ireland being treated differently.
Foolishly, the DUP plotted May’s downfall, while courting more hardline Tories, like the ERG and Boris Johnson – who were certainly more hardline on Brexit, but not, as it turned out, on the union. And who could be surprised?
Despite being called the Conservative and Unionist Party, polls show that party members value Brexit over maintaining the union. Alarmingly, a majority even believe that Brexit matters more than maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. The message to unionists from the mainland is as disappointing today as it was in the days of Carson – they’re just not interested.
Ironically, despite going over the heads of the DUP, the Tories have actually come up with something which is a reasonable compromise for Northern Ireland. If Brexit has to happen, then this deal is the best possible outcome for us.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab even espoused the amazing potential it has to give Northern Ireland special access to the EU market; causing many in Britain to wonder why the rest of us won’t receive the same benefit. But even this final financial incentive left the DUP unconvinced, so concerned are they now for the union which they themselves imperiled.
It is understandable that some unionists feel this Brexit deal is an existential challenge to their very identity, but it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s time the DUP stopped trying to find mutual respect and influence at Westminster where they are never going to find it, and came home to build a new society of equals in Ireland.