How the DUP could save the Union and the Brexit talks, too

The Democratic Unionists are more pragmatic than they like to pretend. 

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Apparently they ran out of beer out at the DUP’s party at last month’s Conservative conference. Getting a drink at a DUP event used to be impossible for a different reason: the party was dominated by Free Presbyterians, the fundamentalist church responsible for progressive activism like the ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign against the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland.

But that was 1977. In 2017, it was standing room only in Manchester as Cabinet ministers, special advisors and lobby journalists jostled tipsily in a sweaty room to get close to the women and men holding the balance of Parliamentary power in the United Kingdom.

Things change. That the DUP has changed was missed by some of the outraged commentary in London at the time they entered into a supply and confidence agreement with the Conservatives in June. It is no longer a millenarian sect with a few grimly comic MPs, but a modern(ish) party that - though there is still much to detest about their politics - changed significantly in order to accept power sharing with Sinn Féin a decade ago.

So it is worth asking whether they could change again, and use their leverage over Theresa May’s government to keep the entire United Kingdom inside a Customs Union with the European Union, and possibly even inside the Single Market. Because that is the most effective way of securing the only union they rarely care about – the one between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Yesterday’s news that the Irish government is pressing more firmly for Northern Ireland to remain inside EU customs and regulatory borders should have rammed home what was obvious to many people long before the referendum: Brexit is a disaster for Ulster unionism.

The fact a British minister feels compelled to assert “the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom” as part of an EU negotiation, as David Davis did yesterday, can only be a backwards step for unionists who had enjoyed two decades of the constitutional question (Union with Britain versus Irish unity) being settled in the minds of the international community.

It may not have been settled in the minds of all Northern Ireland’s citizens, but then nothing ever is. The United States, the EU - as well as both the British and Irish governments – all wanted Northern Ireland’s tragic citizenry to get on with fixing their society and governing themselves.

That was changed by Brexit, and more specifically it was changed by the Prime Minister’s decision to commit to leaving both the Single Market and the Customs Union. As Stephen Bush sets out crisply here, exiting both of these entities (‘hard Brexit’) simply cannot be reconciled with the aim of maintaining a frictionless border on the island of Ireland.

And here we pause for a timely reminder: Ireland is an island. When talking about Europe, hard Brexiteers sometimes mention Britain’s “island race” and trot out clichés about the psychological effect of the English Channel. Well, island geography also applies to Ireland. The prospect of re-imposing customs checks (however light) between the EU member state named Ireland and the UK region named Northern Ireland is already making nationalists bristle.

It isn’t just Sinn Féin voters who care about this. Moderate nationalists have always viewed common EU membership and its economic integration as the most practical and ethical way to achieve a shared island in which they could live as Irish citizens without forcing the question of final unity.

Many softer unionists have come to have a more expansive view of living and doing business across the island, and the growing number of people who identify as neither unionist or nationalist are turned off by the tubthumping British nationalism which seemed to drive the DUP to back Brexit in the first place.

While the DUP and James Brokenshire are right that there is currently no majority for a United Ireland, the DUP must also know there is no majority for the Brexit-loving loyalism that revels in the idea of a border being reasserted for its own sake. To be clear, this is not DUP policy: the serious people in the party (who probably didn’t want a leave vote in the first place) want to protect the open customs border, and the livelihoods of the DUP-voting farmers who move cattle across it.

But the only practical way of keeping the Irish border open is keeping Northern Ireland in some form of customs union (and possibly in the single market with its own ‘special’ status) while the rest of the UK leaves.

The DUP cannot countenance this, and are insisting that the government reject any arrangement that would create an internal UK border between Northern Ireland and Britain.

So the party finds itself with a choice between two undesired outcomes. Accept an Irish sea border, and undermine the union, or accept a hard border and guarantee both economic damage and enough resentment among non-unionists to destabilise the union in the medium to long term (if not sooner).

Even if you ignore the border, Northern Ireland stands to lose more from a harder Brexit than any other part of the UK. It is the most continental-style economy and the least ready to sail into the buccaneering free trade future envisaged by Liam Fox and the Legatum Institute. It is dominated by the state and state-subisidised agriculture. Its largest private sector employer, aircraft manufacturer Bombardier, recently discovered how cold the breeze of mercantilist trade outside a protected market can be, when the Trump administration tried to strong arm it on behalf of Boeing.

So all things considered, surely better to do what DUP leaders have made a habit of in the past decade and change your mind.

The DUP’s confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives commits them to support the Government on Brexit legislation in the Commons. It does not list a detailed prospectus for either the terms of exit, or the future relationship. It does not say anything about leaving either the customs union or the single market.

I’m not personally a unionist, but if I was advising the DUP I’d tell them - as with most Brexiteers - that what they are seeking is unachievable. If they choose to pursue it they will further unsettle the growing segment of Northern Ireland that is ambivalent or hostile to Brexit Britain.

So choose a moment of maximum leverage (possibly in the middle of next year, as talks on the future relationship are looking dicey), offer the Prime Minster a drink (aving restocked after the conference) and tell her you have an idea to help the whole UK.

Tell her Ulster Says No to leaving the Customs Union.

Matthew O’Toole was chief press officer for European affairs at Downing Street from September 2015 to August 2017. He tweets as @MatthewOToole2