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17 October 2019

No, DUP MPs will not split on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal

The party has only ever split twice on Brexit votes - and even then it didn't mean to.

By Patrick Maguire

Will the DUP’s MPs split on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal? That’s the question animating a bewilderingly large number of people in Westminster after Arlene Foster’s party rejected the agreement brokered in Brussels this morning.

The case for the prosecution? Only a handful of the DUP’s 10-strong parliamentary party can be said to be especially doctrinaire Brexiteers, far more are in favour of a deal than not, and there have been reports – albeit emphatically rejected by Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP chief whip – that they were divided on whether to accept the deal agreed by the UK and EU this morning. 

Squint and that line of argument appears at least superficially compelling – but only if you haven’t been paying attention to anything the DUP has done in the Commons since June 2017. Or, indeed, ever. Differences of opinion within the DUP more often result in splits from the party, rather than within it – be it Jim Allister over power-sharing with Sinn Féin, or Jonathan Bell over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. 

Though, like in any party, there is some diversity of opinion on Brexit, there is no chance that it will be borne out in the division lobbies. On only two occasions have DUP MPs been split on a Brexit vote. In February, nine of them opposed an Yvette Cooper amendment that gave MPs a vote on extending Article 50. The tenth, East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, inadvertently voted for it, something he attributed to having been “caught up in the carnival atmosphere” of the evening’s votes – and defended on the basis that it later became government policy anyway. 

In the second round of indicative votes on Brexit outcomes the following month, nine of the 10 abstained on no-deal. Jim Shannon, the MP for Strangford, voted against. The uncharacteristic rebellion was later described as having been made in error by a DUP spokesman.

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Those minor exceptions prove a rule that some in Downing Street and Westminster at large seem incapable of grasping: the DUP do not split or abstain when they believe the question being asked of them is a binary choice between maintaining the Union and weakening it. One can question the wisdom of conceiving of the backstop and its replacement in those terms. But they have been undeniably consistent – and the total absence of ambiguity or equivocation in their rejection of Johnson’s deal this morning is all the evidence one needs to know they will not start now. 

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