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DUP’s spectacular Brexit own goal delivers nationalist First Minister

How did the chief defenders of unionism support a process that diminished the North’s constitutional status within the UK?

It’s hard to understand how the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) somewhere along the path that led to Northern Ireland’s in-out Brexit position didn’t war game the possible outcomes, didn’t conceive of the high-stakes game of poker it was engaged in.

Where were the dissenting voices within the party cautioning against going all in on a hard Brexit and against the expressed wishes of the North’s electorate?

Where was the counsel of prudence when it came to destroying former prime minister Theresa May’s plan to keep the UK (in its entirety) within the EU customs union, a plan that would have kept the North aligned with the other constituent parts of the UK, now the stated aim of the party?

Where was the concern that supporting Boris Johnson and his bevy of cocksure Brexiteers might not be the safest bet?


Their guff about porous electronic borders, a soundbite to make Brussels look unreasonable, disappeared like a wisp of smoke in the wind, leaving the cold reality of a sea border and the North, for the first time in 100 years, dislodged from the UK’s internal market.

Tory party promises of enhanced trade deals, unfettered trading ties with Europe, fewer regulatory burdens on firms or Johnson’s pledge that “nothing will change” for Britons wanting to travel, live and work in Europe have all proved to be pie-in-the-sky nonsense.

A French court has even blocked a last-minute provision for British expats who own homes in France to stay in the country for longer than 90 days without a visa.

The fact that the DUP supported a process so ultimately inimical to its own political aims, even paying for an advertising campaign promoting Brexit in England, where it fields no candidates, and with money from an unknown source, reveals the party was played, and on a grand scale.

Cutting off its economic nose to spite its face is nothing new for the DUP but to be so politically outmanoeuvred must sting.

For the chief defenders of unionism to have supported a process that diminished the North’s constitutional status within the UK while helping Sinn Féin become the largest party in the North and holders of the office of First Minister must go down as one of the most spectacular own goals in Irish political history.

However, we are where we are – as the cliche goes – and the party’s climbdown, aided by a partial streamlining of the Windsor Framework Agreement, and its return to powersharing is a welcome development. Political vacuums in the North don’t tend to end well.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s claim that the new deal would restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK single market is not held by others in the party.

While there is a new checks-free green lane mainly for retail products coming from Britain and destined to be consumed in the North, most of the Windsor Framework agreement still applies. Goods coming from Britain into Northern Ireland – traversing the notional sea border – remains a fault line along with the North’s obligatory alignment with EU single market rules.

As DUP peer Nigel Dodds told the UK’s House of Lords, there is concern “among many unionists . . . at the continued sovereignty, jurisdiction and application of EU laws over large swathes of our economy”.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson put it more trenchantly. “When the Northern Ireland Assembly sits, ministers and Assembly members will be expected by law to adhere to and implement laws which are made in Brussels, which they had no say over and no ability to amend, and no ability to stop,” he said.

“This is a result of this spineless, weak-kneed, Brexit-betraying government, refusing to take on the EU and its interference in Northern Ireland,” Wilson said.

By perennially playing hardball, the DUP has alienated moderate unionist voters, ceding political ground to Sinn Féin and the Alliance. The traditional “no surrender” stance is seemingly dictated by a small number of hardliners who are increasingly at odds with a “confident, forward-looking unionism” that Donaldson wants to foster.

Either way the latest iteration of the North’s post-Brexit trade deal alongside a £3.3 billion financial package from London has been enough to restore Stormont.

The most disappointing aspect of the peace process is that it has failed – so far at least – to engender a spirit of co-operation befitting the political compromise that spawned it.

The North’s economy has slipped further and further behind the rest of the UK since the 1998 Belfast Agreement and is now the poorest and least productive region in the UK. The truce was meant to allow for economic co-operation without the toxicity of politics but the North is a long way from a flourishing economy.

The one upside to the the North’s new Brexit trading arrangements – still to be exploited – is that firms based in the North can simultaneously sell into the UK, the biggest consumer market in Europe, and the EU single market, the biggest consumer market in the world. The DUP will have to drop its political misgivings to sell this advantage to prospective investors.