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29 October 2018

£1 billion for Northern Ireland won’t buy off the DUP on Brexit

The unionists will support the budget, despite threatening not to – but its loyalty is still heavily qualified.

By Patrick Maguire

After a fractious couple of months for relations between the government and its parliamentary allies, has Philip Hammond bought the loyalty of the DUP? With more than £1 billion in extra funding promised for Northern Ireland in the budget – which the party’s nine MPs will vote for – that’s the conclusion some will reach this evening.

It was only last month, of course, that the unionists threatened in no uncertain terms to vote down the Budget if the government agreed to a Brexit deal that involved any form of differential treatment for Northern Ireland.

Theirs is a game of multi-dimensional chess and it was much a warning to the government as it was a bid to stress their credentials to Conservative Brexiteers, whose easiest path to a Canada-style exit would involve a border in the Irish Sea. The DUP’s message was clear: we won’t rat on Brexit for the sake of extra cash if you don’t rat on the union. That also explains why Nigel Dodds appropriated the language of Tory Leavers to demand “optimism” from Hammond in the run-up to the Budget, and why Sammy Wilson criticised him for failing to outline “the opportunities for the UK as we exit the EU” this afternoon.

So why, then, will the DUP support the Budget after all? The most obvious answer is that £1 billion, which includes £350 million in funding for a city deal for Belfast, £2 million in funding for the capital’s city centre (as demanded its three Belfast MPs), £350 million for cross-community housing and education, and a £320 million increase in the province’s block grant.

In short: plenty of good news for the DUP, for whom the point of exercises like this is to prove that unionism works, and plenty of grist for their political mill. Seeing them satisfied – which Julian Smith, who spent much of Philip Hammond’s speech staring in the direction of Nigel Dodds, was keen to do – will ease Tory anxieties a little.

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But the real reason the DUP have fallen into line makes less comfortable reading for the government. As far as they are concerned, the budget was not a flashpoint because the prime minister has yet to make a decision on the shape of the Brexit. Only at that point will the need for a decision arise. When it does, the fact that Northern Ireland got a good deal today will be neither here nor there. The DUP’s fundamental calculation remains the same: “Baubles don’t trump the Union,” a source tells me.

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Any optimists on the Tory benches should remember Kipling’s verse on the Danegeld, the protection money paid by the Saxon kings to prevent Viking pillage. “Though we know we should defeat you/we have not the time to meet you/We will therefore pay you cash to go away/And that is called paying the Dane-geld/But we’ve proved it again and again/That if one you have paid him the Dane-geld/You never get rid of the Dane.” The same holds true now: the Tories cannot pay to get rid of the DUP’s existential red line on the sanctity of the union.

As ever, the hardest confrontation has merely been deferred – with the unionists handed an easy win in the meantime. “As Cromwell said,” a source tells me, “trust in God, and keep your powder dry.”