Theresa May begins a two-day trip to Northern Ireland today – only her third since the 2017 general election – taking in talks with parties from across political divides and an obligatory trip to the border that has made her job so intractable.
As Tory MPs attempt to broker a compromise on a technological replacement for the backstop that the EU is bound to reject, the prime minister will use a speech this afternoon to claim the government will find a solution that “commands broad support across the community in Northern Ireland, and that secures a majority in the Westminster Parliament”.
May’s problem is that those two goals are mutually exclusive, if possible at all. While both the DUP and UUP, the two main parties of Ulster unionism, are united in their opposition to the withdrawal agreement and backstop as they currently exist, Northern Ireland’s cross-community and nationalist parties have been outspoken in their support (as has its business community). They include Labour’s sister party, the SDLP, Sinn Fein, Alliance and the Greens. All backed Remain in 2016 and none want changes to the backstop.
But as far as May’s aims are concerned, the most important thing that unites the latter group is the fact that they have no representation at Westminster. Sinn Fein do not take their seven seats, while the SDLP lost their three in June 2017. The closest thing the pro-backstop majority has to a political representative in Westminster is Sylvia Hermon, the independent unionist MP for North Down. Downing Street has assiduously cultivated her support, but securing her vote will always be of secondary importance to the DUP’s 10, for obvious reasons of parliamentary arithmetic.
The government’s working assumption is that convincing its confidence and supply partners to back the deal will unlock most of the 118 Conservative MPs who joined them in voting against it at the first time of asking. Many were Brexiteers who deliberately mimicked the DUP’s concerns over the constitutional integrity of the UK. Should Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds give a revised deal their imprimatur, much of the Tory opposition will melt away too. With the help of Labour rebels, May would stand a decent chance to fulfil one of the promises she will make in Belfast today – to win Westminster’s approval for a withdrawal agreement.
Doing so, however, means breaking another: finding a solution with cross-community support. That pledge is also written into Labour’s dispiritingly elastic policy on the backstop, which Jeremy Corbyn often chooses to ignore. But the politics of Westminster – and the brute fact of the result of the 2017 election – mean that the only Northern Irish MPs that matter to the prime minister and leader of the opposition are the DUP’s, who will only accept a backstop that the Attorney General tells them is temporary. As far as almost everyone else in Northern Ireland is concerned, that isn’t a backstop at all.
One might conclude that Northern Ireland’s adversarial politics make this stalemate inevitable. They don’t. Theresa May’s red lines do that. Were she to propose a future relationship involving a customs union and alignment with single market regulations on goods, agriculture, electricity, VAT, and state aid, she would take the backstop out of play and could almost certainly win the support of a cross-party majority in Westminster and ensure cross-community consensus in Northern Ireland. But the prime minister, far more party political than she is ideological, has shown neither the willingness nor ability to incur the pain that compromise will inflict. Until she or somebody else does, those two promises will remain irreconcilable.