Thursday 19 September 2019

Martina Devlin: 'While the DUP is making eyes at Boris, everyone else in the North sees May's deal as the only show in town'

Boris Johnson is on a charm offensive and bound to steal Arlene Foster’s thunder. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA
Boris Johnson is on a charm offensive and bound to steal Arlene Foster’s thunder. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

I don't buy the sight of them snuggling up together. "You'll love each other," mutual friends encourage the relationship. "You have so much in common." But when they look into one another's eyes, realisation dawns that they can't possibly share a slice of cake, let alone a political strategy.

Brexit has led to some strange bedfellows. However, the spectacle of Boris Johnson courting the DUP at today's annual conference in Belfast is too bizarre to do it justice.

No dating agency, after feeding their CVs into the computer, would ever suggest such a pairing. Never in a month of Sundays, or Sabbaths if you're DUP, will this liaison flourish.

However, these are early days in the wooing, and the optics are tuned to affectionate, for now. Expect fulsome declarations of mutual respect and admiration.

That prior understanding between the DUP and Theresa May has lost its sparkle, and it looks as if someone is getting their ring back.

One of Boris's aims in attending the conference is to put paid to the confidence and supply agreement. We can expect him to deliver a firecracker speech, blazing with references to protecting the union and the indomitability of the British empire. Delegates will be invited to turn back their watches to the 1950s, at least.

Essentially, the British empire is just Britain now, with a few pink dots speckled here and there on the map, but no one at the Crowne Plaza Hotel is prepared to admit it.

Time travel is fine by the DUP, which would prefer the clock turned back to 1920, when Northern Ireland was hived off from the rest of Ireland and took its place in the bubble where it continues to exist. The party is out of step, not only with the majority of the Northern Irish population, but among some of its own electorate - dangerous ground for any political grouping to occupy.

The DUP is attempting to lead people into the abyss and something close to a mutiny is taking place.

Northern Irish farming and business representatives are urging the party publicly to support Theresa May's withdrawal agreement, visiting 10 Downing Street to register their support. The DUP's response? Everyone else is wrong, and we're right.

As for Boris, he isn't capable of delivering a dose of reality. Make-believe is his speciality. He's not in Belfast because he cares a gnat's burp about the North or its people - the place is a pawn in his own leadership ambitions.

The fatted calf will be killed and cooked for him. However, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and Boris will be exposed to rather more religion than he's accustomed to - and a fundamentalist brand at that - while he goes about reassuring DUP members he'll never betray them (unlike those Jezebels, Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher).

DUP members may be blinkered, but they aren't fools. Their backs are to the wall, and you take your allies where you can get them in such situations, but most know him for a man who will never accept responsibility for his actions and will always put personal ambition first.

Boris is on a charm offensive and bound to steal Arlene Foster's thunder. She's in the unfortunate position of making her address directly after a speaker who's box office for good reason, but she'll take it on the chin. She puts up with a lot already from her Westminster MPs.

Agreeable as Boris intends to be, I'd be surprised if he makes it over to Belfast in time for the opening session when 'Wee Free' minister Lord McCrea is due to lead the faithful in prayer. There may be rather less scripture cited in DUP circles than in Ian Paisley Snr's day, but the Old Testament is still its touchstone. Perhaps some of the bible bashing will be paused in favour of May bashing.

Incidentally, Lord McCrea is better known as DUP politician Willie McCrea, who has strong views on Border communities.

At the 1986 annual conference, he proposed the Royal Air Force should bomb Dundalk, Drogheda, Carrickmore and Crossmaglen, according to a Northern Ireland Office memo released under the 30-year rule.

Both Boris and the DUP are aware they can only trust each other as long as their interests are in lockstep. But unionism itself is no longer aligned - in the face of the Brexit threat, it is not united.

Whatever is said at today's conference, we know the DUP is not speaking for the people of the North, which means the party is making a major strategic error in allowing its euro-scepticism to alienate it from the bulk of the population.

Clearly, the North is in a process of evolution, speeded up by Brexit. The 'Economist' this week raised the question of Irish reunification being "an accidental by-product" of Brexit - the law of unintended consequences. And the DUP is fearful of exactly that.

It all boils down to the backstop. The party recognises there is a material difference between a political agreement and a legal one: a stated intention to avoid the backstop is fluid political speak lacking the certainty of a legally binding deal.

If talks fail between the UK and the EU in the future, the backstop is the result - which keeps open the Irish Border while erecting barriers between Northern Ireland and Britain.

Leavers such as Boris and the DUP prefer the idea of crashing out, whereas Northern businesses, farmers, bankers, community leaders, academics, and just about every other sector you care to name, are aghast.

In the run-up to the referendum, leavers said talk of 'no deal' was "project fear", but now we have former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab insisting that the UK must be willing to walk away from the EU taking its £39bn, too.

Mrs May has reached a reasonable deal with the EU, and all of the member states are likely to sign off on it tomorrow. However, the crunch is the House of Commons vote in the second week of December, and it's almost impossible to predict if the withdrawal agreement will squeak through or go down.

The presence of the backstop in the agreement makes it difficult for some of her MPs to support Mrs May.

The EU is adamant that if the Border is kept open, then the UK must abide by various EU rules - so the Tories can only take back control if they begin the process of shedding Northern Ireland, customs and regulatory gaps opening up between the two. Otherwise, it's Brexit in name only, and there's a sense of having been bamboozled.

So, tomorrow in Brussels will mark not the end but the beginning of the end, a regrettable but hopefully an amicable separation.

And today in Belfast? That's a relationship with no future on a one-way ticket to a split.

Irish Independent

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