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11 October 2019

What the DUP’s response to Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan does and doesn’t say

It isn’t the straightforward no Westminster has come to expect from the Northern Irish party, but nor is it yet an endorsement. 

By Patrick Maguire

After Boris Johnson’s meeting with Leo Varadkar broke up – not with another round of acrimonious briefing – but with a joint statement revealing that an agreed pathway to a deal on the Irish border existed, it was immediately clear that something had given on the UK side – most likely on the question of customs. 

So it has proved. The Prime Minister has refused to rule out Northern Ireland staying in the EU customs union. It transpires that the basis of a new phase of negotiations is a proposal that, to all intents and purposes, is identical to the customs partnership floated by Theresa May – and opposed by ministers like Johnson – last year. 

Under the plan, Northern Ireland would de jure leave the customs union with the rest of the UK but de facto be treated as if it were a part of it, necessitating customs checks and the collection of the EU’s common external tariff at Northern Irish ports (businesses would receive a rebate in the event of a difference between the EU and UK customs rate). 

At the Conservative Party conference earlier this month, Arlene Foster was clear that on the question of customs, there would be no compromise. 

The DUP leader’s response to today’s developments, however, does not look quite so unequivocal. 

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Understandably, there has been much speculation in the period since the Prime Minister met the Taoiseach yesterday (Thursday). 

Those discussions are a matter for the United Kingdom government as they negotiate Brexit issues. However the Democratic Unionist Party, given its pivotal role in Parliament, as the largest Northern Ireland party will always exercise our considerable influence in ensuring we stand up for Northern Ireland. We will only ever consider supporting arrangements that are in Northern Ireland’s long-term economic and constitutional interests.

We are regularly in touch with the Prime Minister and as a result he is aware of our views. 

The United Kingdom EU referendum result delivered the people’s verdict and it must be delivered. To do otherwise would be anti-democratic. 

We have been consistent in our opposition to the backstop, whether UK or NI only, and anything that traps Northern Ireland in the European Union, whether Single Market or Customs Union, as the rest of the United Kingdom leaves will not have our support. The Prime Minister is very mindful of that.

We have argued that it is important to secure a balanced and sensible deal as we leave the European Union. Those who know anything about Northern Ireland will appreciate that these issues will only work with the support of the unionist as well as the nationalist community.

The DUP has always indicated that the United Kingdom must leave the EU as one nation and in so doing that no barriers to trade are erected within the UK.

In December 2017 we insisted that democratic consent was required in circumstances where Northern Ireland would align alongside specific sectors of the EU single market. 

Paragraph 50 of the Joint Report between the United Kingdom and the European Union outlined the requirement for such consent. We have held steadfast to that position while recognising the need to be flexible and look at Northern Ireland specific solutions achieved with the support and consent of the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland.

In order to secure a sensible deal for everyone it is important that the European Union understand that to maximise the prospects of agreement there will need to be a clear acceptance that the economic and constitutional integrity of the whole of the United Kingdom will have to be respected as we leave.

As a consequence of the mandate given to us by voters in 2017 the DUP is very relevant in the Parliamentary arithmetic and regardless of the ups and downs of the Brexit discussions that has not changed.

We will judge any outcome reached by the Prime Minister against the criteria above.

There is some excitement that Foster did not respond with a flat no. Quite how she was supposed to do so given that no concrete proposal yet exists to reject is unclear. But it is fair to say the tone is neither menacing nor bellicose, as the party’s statements against Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement often were. 

Yet in reasserting at some length the party’s familiar red lines – no divergence from Great Britain on customs, and regulatory divergence only with the consent of Stormont – it leaves wide open the prospect of rejecting whatever emerges from the Brussels negotiation tunnel. 

In stressing the importance of securing the consent of the “representatives of the people of Northern Ireland”, rather than the people themselves, it also draws a new red line: no to a referendum on whatever new arrangements end up applying to Northern Ireland.

But, having already softened its position on regulatory divergence, there are also hints that Foster’s party could do so on customs. It is noteworthy that the economic interests of Northern Ireland are presented as equivalent to unionism’s constitutional interest. 

Of course, DUP politicians have long argued that they are one and the same – a regulatory barrier in the Irish Sea, they say, is as much an impediment to trade with the rest of the UK as it as a constitutional carbuncle. But it goes without saying that defending the economic case for some sort of special status for Northern Ireland is a much easier wicket for the DUP than defending its constitutional implications, which has proved very tricky indeed. 

It is just about possible to reverse engineer a case for the economic boon that a customs partnership could provide actually strengthening Northern Ireland’s position in the union – especially if notwithstanding the prima facie argument about what it means for the province’s constitutional settlement. 

The form of words Foster has alighted could eventually allow her to do just that. But while it isn’t the straightforward no Westminster has come to expect from the DUP, nor is it yet an endorsement. 

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