Sunday 15 September 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Let bygones be bygones - why not give the DUP a Brexit landing space? It could be its finest hour'

DUP leader Arlene Foster. Photo: PA
DUP leader Arlene Foster. Photo: PA
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

'Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves, that if the British empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour'." Sound familiar? Here's a clue. It's not Arlene Foster.

But it almost could be. That's the Churchillian tone she's channelling: a politician fighting on the beaches to protect her followers' British identity, somehow under threat if any backstop compromise happens.

The DUP tends to behave as though some more trade checks at Larne - which already take place for live animals arriving from Scotland - would mean a united Ireland by next year's Twelfth.

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But something has shifted. Language has moderated, "accommodation" is being cited, the no-surrender slogan has been decommissioned.

Ms Foster was banging the drum yesterday for exiting the EU as "one nation" to counteract suggestions her party was ready to drop its objections to a Northern Ireland-only backstop. But those blood-red lines of hers are shading to pink - she wants "a sensible deal" now, not Brexitmageddon. Something is preparing to give.

Boris Johnson, that cut-price Winston Churchill, has already sold out her and the Gang of Ten and they know it. If Kenneth Clarke and Nicholas Soames can be shaken off, so can the DUP.

Come what may, the DUP is stumbling towards a Brexit deal - not least because it fears the surging Alliance vote will put Belfast seats at risk in a general election. It is busy hedging its bets as the finishing post looms.

Nigel Dodds even mentioned nationalists in a relatively positive way on BBC television the other day, suggesting they have a role to play in Stormont. This, from a party pushing for majoritarian rule in the North until recently.

But back to those rousing words about duty. Winston Churchill said them in the House of Commons in 1940 after the Dunkirk evacuation, pledging that Britain would continue the war. In the same address, he referenced "this dread balance sheet" - which brings to mind the Brexit balance sheet.

'Operation Yellowhammer', the UK government's own assessment of a no-deal Brexit, exposes the cost. It is cheerless about Britain's prospects - "low income groups will be disproportionately affected by any price rises in food and fuel" - but raises a host of spectres for Northern Ireland. They include civil unrest, resumption of violence, jobs melting away especially in agri-foods, cross-border trade disrupted, road blocks at the Border and a black market boom.

Tut-tut, pessimism, says Michael Gove, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. That's a worst-case scenario - focus on the sunlit uplands is his message. But sunshine is in short supply with police vehicles under attack with Molotov cocktails in the Creggan area of Derry this week.

To date, the DUP has been sanguine about Brexit damage to the Northern economy. It knew a border round the Irish Sea and Northern Ireland as a special economic zone had province-wide support, but was indifferent while it had leverage over the Tories.

That has evaporated now. And Mr Johnson has discovered all roads lead not to Rome, but to Dublin. A sea border is the most obvious and practical way out of his Brexit impasse and the DUP realises that.

A source tells me DUP leaders are being squeezed by Johnson heavies: agree to something close to the backstop or reconcile yourselves to joint authority with Dublin and a Border poll.

Significantly, an uncharacteristically nervous Mr Dodds told BBC 'Newsnight' this week: "There may be some areas… of the economy where it is to the benefit of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and the Irish Republic and the rest of the EU to have arrangements." Arrangements? A new name for the backstop?

They would have to be subject to the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly, he added. This prepares the way for a fudge. The DUP needs a fig leaf and Stormont could be a means of sparing blushes. The Stormont lock on new EU regulations - a sort of double backstop - is now being advanced. The Assembly signs off on regulatory divergence from Britain - hey presto, it's not "anti-democratic" any more.

But the idea of allowing a veto and the DUP into the same sentence, let alone the same regional parliament, is dangerous territory. In any case there is no Stormont and no incentive for Sinn Féin to go back in now at precisely the time when the DUP has a compelling reason to return.

Here's another moving part to consider. Some are suggesting a referendum on the backstop in Northern Ireland to give it legitimacy. But that would be treated as a proxy Border vote. Speaking of which, a poll from Lord Ashcroft asked 1,542 adults in the North how they would vote if a referendum on Irish reunification was held tomorrow. The result was 51pc to 49pc in favour of joining the Republic.

A significant majority in younger age groups supported reunification while the over-65s opposed it. The margin for error must be considerable in a poll of this nature, but it reflects a trend. It's a case of when and not if for a Border poll under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

But increased efforts towards community reconciliation in the North are essential first. In that spirit, I say let bygones be bygones. Why not give the DUP a Brexit landing space? I don't mean an absolute veto, but yes to a face saver.

That bridge unionists fancy between Northern Ireland and Scotland is imaginative enough to be on the right lines, although it sounds challenging to build. Bridges are the right ballpark, though - too many have been burned over Brexit.

Some overdue bridge-building between Ireland and Britain happened in Dublin on Monday when Mr Johnson and Leo Varadkar met, although Mr Johnson is still banging on about trusted traders and technology as a Border solution.

The Taoiseach said yesterday the gap was "very wide" between the two sides, while for Michel Barnier no deal remains possible. But there are green shoots. This is quite an achievement considering the scorched earth rhetoric of late.

A legal challenge against no deal, as contrary to the Good Friday Agreement, failed in Belfast earlier this week, but Scotland's highest court has ruled Mr Johnson acted unlawfully in suspending parliament. The supreme court in London will consider the issue next Tuesday.

If it finds against the prime minister, another ingredient will be added to the witch's brew he is double-double-toil-and-troubling up for himself.

Finally, to those who question parliament's purpose, as Brexiteers are prone to do, the 'Yellowhammer' papers provide an answer.

The British government resisted releasing them but had to give way following yet another lost vote in the Commons.

Margaret Atwood took time out from discussing her latest book, 'The Testaments', to offer a friendly warning: "If you don't need parliament you're cooked because you will have a dictatorship - that is what it will be."

Irish Independent

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