Can any Brexit deal satisfy the DUP? That’s the question that looks set to define whether Boris Johnson will manage to secure an agreement with Brussels – and a parliamentary majority to pass it at Westminster.
When the outline of the prime minister’s new plan emerged after crisis talks with Leo Varadkar, the taoiseach, last week, the response from his coalition partners made clear their need to be satisfied on two Cs: customs, and consent. On the former, Arlene Foster and her deputy, Nigel Dodds, have both been clear – Northern Ireland must leave the EU customs union on the same terms as the rest of the UK.
That would appear to rule out the sort of model under discussion, under which Northern Ireland would leave the customs union, but administer EU checks at its ports. Yet despite the alacrity with which they have restated their most fundamental of red lines, the DUP has not yet ruled any specific proposal out. Its statements on the customs question have been couched in much broader terms than one might expect at the eleventh hour.
Where they have been much more specific, however, is on the question of how Northern Ireland might consent to any new arrangements that are agreed. The DUP says it is not a no-deal party, and that its preference is for a good deal. Follow that logic to its inevitable conclusion and the importance the party is attaching to agreeing a consent mechanism – which Downing Street says is the focus of today’s discussions – makes perfect sense.
One of the laziest – and most popular – criticisms of the DUP is of its supposed hypocrisy when it comes to regulatory or legal differences between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Contrasting their willingness to accept an Irish Sea border on libel law, air passenger duty, same sex marriage and abortion and their noisy opposition to divergence on customs – and, until recently, single market regulations – makes for easy sport.
But what that increasingly hoary meme neglects is the role of the DUP in the minds of its politicians, members, and voters – to secure Northern Ireland’s relationship with Great Britain, and referee its relationship with the Republic of Ireland. Less significant than the fact of any divergence is the DUP’s ability to licence or veto it. If they cannot do so, then they lose their unique selling point as a political party. No financial inducement is likely to be large enough to force them to concede this point, though it will sugar any pill.
That is why their preference – outlined by Sammy Wilson in the Commons this afternoon – is for a mechanism that requires the dual consent of both nationalist and unionist parties in the currently moribund Stormont Assembly, as opposed to a Northern Ireland referendum. The former would give them an effective veto, while the latter would not. It really is that simple. That calculation, more than any other, will determine the course of the coming days.