Sunday 20 October 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'DUP way out of its depth as Merkel decides the end-game has finally arrived'

'The thought of a divide in Ireland is surely anathema to Merkel’s core instincts.' Photo: Reuters/Axel Schmidt
'The thought of a divide in Ireland is surely anathema to Merkel’s core instincts.' Photo: Reuters/Axel Schmidt

Gerard O'Regan

When the dust finally settles on this wayward Brexit drama - and with the benefit of hindsight - there will be those judged to be winners and losers in the whole long-running saga.

As of now, one of those destined for the losers camp is DUP leader Arlene Foster. Her limitations as a political strategist have been brutally exposed; she and her party are out of their depth in the whirlpool of European power politics.

The old subtext 'Ulster Says No', which seems to underpin too many of Foster's utterances, is an echo from a bygone era. In continental capitals prototype DUP doggedness is simply seen as something to be confronted.

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The biggest miscalculation by Arlene Foster was an underestimation of collective EU willpower. Throughout all the toing and froing, the Brussels powerhouse refused to bend when it came to the core interests of the Varadkar Government.

As the brinkmanship intensified in recent months, the resolve of DUP supporters in Westminster was put under enormous pressure. Would the Tory heartlands stake their entire Brexit project on what many regarded as a fringe group on the edges of the UK? More importantly would British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stay loyal to the DUP cause? With his options declining almost by the hour, would he sacrifice his premiership and remain ever faithful to Arlene Foster's 'red lines'?

One of the reasons matters came to a head this week was the strident signals emanating from Angela Merkel. The inner sanctum in Berlin had decided the end-game had arrived. Its bottom line was Britain could indeed leave the EU - with or without a deal. But regardless of the consequences, there would be no breach of solidarity with the Republic of Ireland. German car manufacturers and the like would not blink. Their revered single market and customs union would be protested at all costs. That meant EU members sticking together no matter what.

There was also powerful symbolism in the decision of the German ambassador to Ireland to visit the Border, hours before the Varadkar-Johnson summit. Local residents were assured Germans know at first hand the destructive force of unnecessary divides. Locals were again reminded of the commitment of the Merkel government to the principles of the peace process.

It may be the German chancellor's experience as a child and young woman living behind the Iron Curtain has made her especially empathic to Irish concerns. Her biographers confirm her as somebody with an almost messianic belief in a "Europe without borders". The thought of a divide in Ireland - against the wishes of a majority North and south - is surely anathema to her core instincts.

Despite an unyielding stance in Berlin and elsewhere, the DUP continued to place all its hopes in Tory hardliners. All the while, thousands of unionists in the farming and business communities warned Foster's Brexit strategy would destroy their livelihoods. This was her biggest miscalculation. Like Boris Johnson, her actions have left her increasingly cornered, with declining options.

Regardless of how Brexit eventually plays out, unionism, in the words of one of its former leaders, Terence O'Neill, is once again "at a crossroads". But there is serious doubt as to whether Arlene Foster has the vision and foresight to chart a new pathway given the challenges ahead.

Meanwhile, as Brexit and related matters remained doggedly centre stage, Leinster House saw through the most low-key budget in our recent history. Even Opposition parties found it difficult to work up a sweat when bewailing its inadequacies.

But this was not too surprising. After all, of more consequence for jobs and living standards would be the fallout from a much-feared no-deal Brexit. There was general agreement that Ireland Inc needed to brace itself for a possible doomsday scenario. The ability to pay our way is vital. Hence, there was grudging acceptance for some caution as regards the country's finances.

If things should still fall apart Brexit-wise we will be left battling economic squalls on various fronts. A policy of 'what we have, we hold' makes sense. As the saying goes: "Sometimes a few pounds in the pocket is great for the nerves."

Irish Independent

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