It's time for the DUP to ditch its Brexit crusade and wake up to Northern Ireland’s real issues

Northern Irish confidence is in short supply as political deadlock continues and the DUP flirt with No Deal and non-existent alternatives.

Niamh McCaughey
7 December 2018
arlene foster.jpg

Image: DUP leader Arlene Foster speaking at their party conference last month. Credit: Michael Cooper/PA Images, all rights reserved.

18 months after it came to the rescue of the Conservative government – securing a confidence and supply deal that promised to ‘deliver for all’ – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) seems intent on risking a spectacular fall from grace and maximising the misery Brexit will inflict upon communities in Northern Ireland by gambling with the prospect of a no-deal withdrawal from the EU.

The DUP’s penchant for divergence from the best interests of the people it claims to represent is uncanny. In spite of predictions that Northern Ireland would be hit hardest by Brexit, the risks it poses to a fragile peace process, and a majority voting to remain in the 2016 referendum, the DUP’s commitment to leaving the EU never waned.

Its persistence appeared to have paid off when Theresa May found herself in desperate need of a willing partner following the loss of a Conservative majority in last June’s general election. Catapulted overnight from the tedium of political stalemate at Stormont into the heart of Westminster, the DUP relished its new-found position at the forefront of British politics. But alas, even strong and stable relationships can falter, and the marriage of convenience between the DUP and the Conservative Party is no exception.

In recent interviews both Arlene Foster and the DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds have reiterated that under no circumstances could the party support May’s proposed Brexit deal, with Dodds describing it “the worst of all worlds”.

Not according to the government’s latest analysis of the economic impact of leaving the EU, which predicts Northern Ireland would be one of the hardest hit regions in the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit – the worst outcome of the four withdrawal scenarios projected. Conversely, the same analysis predicted that Northern Ireland would be one of the least negatively affected regions if a withdrawal based on the proposed draft deal took place. None of the Brexit options modelled in the report would allow the region to avoid negative economic consequences entirely, but a no-deal scenario is by far the worst outcome envisioned. If the DUP had any intention of attempting an exercise in damage limitation, rejecting the draft deal in favour of a non-existent alternative hardly seems advisable.

Even prior to the release of the government’s analysis, concerns over the economic challenges a no-deal scenario might present to Northern Ireland were expressed by prominent local stakeholders, prompting both the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in Northern Ireland, and the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) to publicly declare their backing for May’s deal. In response, DUP leader Arlene Foster accused the CBI and UFU of failing to understand the proposed deal.

The reality is that Northern Irish business leaders and farmers understand very well the potentially disastrous economic impact of a no-deal Brexit, not just for commerce but for an entire region already disproportionately burdened with severe social and economic deprivation.

Earlier this year, research based on Office of National Statistics and local authority data found that people living in the three most deprived parts of the country are more likely to die prematurely than anywhere else in the UK. In 2016 alone, 4,000 people in Northern Ireland died from preventable causes. Rates of mental illness 25% higher than in England, a suicide rate that exceeds the death toll of the Troubles, the worst waiting times for cancer treatment nationally, the highest levels of non-employment and lower wages than the rest the UK are just some of the some of the challenges uniquely faced by a region still dealing with the legacy of conflict.

Against this backdrop of chronic deprivation, the DUP portrayed its £1billion confidence and supply deal as a resounding victory for the people of Northern Ireland. However, figures released by Stormont departments in August revealed that only one of seven schemes in receipt of confidence and supply funding specifically intended to mitigate social deprivation saw an overall increase in their budget, lending credence to Sinn Féin’s assertion that the DUP is simply using the confidence and supply money to conceal funding cuts to vital services.

Frustration at the DUP’s failure to deliver on its confidence and supply promises is exacerbated by the democratic vacuum that has existed since the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017. The impasse has put crucial health, social, education and infrastructure programmes that require ministerial oversight on hold indefinitely. Last Friday David Sterling, leader of a beleaguered Northern Ireland Civil Service, warned that without restoration of the Executive “our children will be losers”. Arguably, that point has already passed.

On the streets of Northern Ireland, the current dominant political issue is certainly not Brexit. During a BBC interview on the impact of Brexit on local business, the Director at the Institute of Directors Northern Ireland Kirsty McManus voiced frustration at the absence of devolution, admitting that she “would love to be on here talking about the fact that we are approaching nearly two years without an executive here in Northern Ireland”. And after a tour around local unionist communities last week in an attempt to sell the PM’s Brexit deal, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley concluded that “the thing that exercises people the most is a lack of devolved government in Stormont”.

For residents of Northern Ireland, the protracted Brexit saga is becoming an increasingly unwelcome distraction from the more pressing matter of restoring a functioning government. Little wonder then that support for Brexit has waned further since the referendum, and business and farming communities are keen to back a deal that ensures some degree of certainty as soon as possible.

There aren’t many good options for the DUP as far as Brexit is concerned. The notion that scuppering May’s deal will result in a more favourable alternative arrangement is recklessly arrogant; parliament has become so fragmented that negotiating any deal capable of securing the approval of both a Commons majority and the EU before the March 2019 deadline seems impossible.

In recent days, the so-called Norway plus arrangement has been revisited as a possible alternative, but significant obstacles lie in the way of such a deal being implemented – not least its rejection by Norway and its failure to meet several of May’s red lines, as well as being distinctly unpalatable to hardline Brexiters (including Boris Johnson, the DUP’s new darling after a rather bizarre guest appearance at their annual party conference last Sunday).

Assuming May’s proposed deal fails Tuesday’s vote in parliament, a Conservative Party leadership challenge or general election would not necessarily deliver a leader sympathetic to the DUP’s cause; indeed the possibility of a Labour leader taking up residence at Number 10 could not be entirely ruled out. Up until very recently, this truly would have been the worst of all worlds for the DUP, but Foster’s refusal to rule out out voting against May in a no-confidence motion, having already sided with Labour in several recent key votes, proves that for the DUP even Jeremy Corbyn isn’t quite as unpalatable as the backstop. Nonetheless, Labour itself is divided on the Northern Ireland dilemma and has yet to articulate a credible alternative; openly conspiring May’s downfall is likely to be the extent of any DUP-Labour dalliance.

While another referendum seems unlikely at present, if the Brexit square cannot be circled in Westminster and the patience of the EU – inevitably – runs out, the likelihood of the issue being returned to the public to decide seems increasingly plausible. The Party’s hard-line Brexiters may balk at the suggestion, but if the DUP has any inclination toward self-preservation, and sparing its constituents indefinite social, political and economic uncertainty and hardship, it could do worse than abandon its Brexit crusade entirely.

Although this would involve swallowing a fairly generous slice of humble pie, if framed as an opportunity to prioritise the economic and social needs of Northern Ireland, as well as a renewed commitment to restore devolution, it might allow the DUP to retain a degree of credibility. It would also undermine Sinn Féin’s ability to capitalise on its opposition to Brexit at the expense of the DUP – something it has been doing rather well if the Electoral Commission’s latest party donation figures are anything to go by – and pressure them to return to the negotiating table at Stormont. And if the result of the vote weighed in favour of remaining in the EU, it would eliminate the scenario that threatened the constitutional integrity of the UK in the first place, finally putting an end to the whole sorry Brexit, borders, and backstops debacle.

Of course, this is also a significant gamble – not least because it assumes that a referendum would deliver a different result, which is not at all certain – but it is preferable to being complicit in the improbable, yet still possible, scenario that the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal. In this instance, blame for the ensuing political and economic chaos in Northern Ireland will be squarely placed on the DUP, sabotaging its electoral prospects, and swelling the ranks of nationalists calling for a referendum on Irish reunification.

The peril a no-deal Brexit poses to the resumption of power-sharing and consequently the Northern Ireland peace process cannot be overestimated; quite simply, no party claiming to represent the best interests of the region could countenance such a scenario in good faith. At her latest annual party conference, Foster claimed that her motivation in government “was always to do the right thing at the right time and for the right reasons.” There is no better time for the DUP to do the right thing, and for no better reason than to offer hope to the region’s most vulnerable citizens who continue to languish under a social, economic, and political system that has been failing them for too long already.

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