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5 December 2017

The DUP won’t back down on the Irish border – so can Theresa May survive?

They are more than willing to pull the building down if they believe it advances their political aims.

By Stephen Bush

All dressed up and nowhere to go: Theresa May headed to Brussels yesterday with the expectation of being able to announce that an accord had been reached on legacy issues and that both sides were now ready to move towards discussion of the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom after Brexit.

On the remaining unsettled issue of the Irish border – the British government has caved over money while the EU27 has essentially conceded to the British plan on citizens’ rights – the UK had signed up to regulatory convergence between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

But the accord unraveled over lunch as the PM had to leave her working meal with Jean-Claude Juncker after Arlene Foster announced that the DUP would not countenance any deal that did not respect the territorial and economic integrity of the United Kingdom.

“DUP wrecks May’s Brexit deal” is the Guardian‘s splash, “May fights to save Brexit deal after Unionist veto” is the Times‘s, “DUPed” is the Mirror‘s side-splitter, while the Metro opts for “They’re taking the DUP”. “Brexit deal is done…then DUP says no” is the i‘s take, and “Brexit divorce derailed at 11th hour after DUP blocks Irish border deal” is the FT‘s. “Losing it” is the Telegraph‘s…wait, sorry, that’s their take on the cricket. But the real thing is scarcely better: “May’s push for deal ends in chaos”.

Can the PM turn it around? Although the opposition of the DUP added a note of theatre to the affair, she has a Conservative Party problem, too: her hard Brexit flank doesn’t want Northern Ireland to have a different Brexit to the United Kingdom and neither does her soft Brexit wing. The presence of the DUP adds to the risk for May, too, in that they are more than willing to pull the building down if they believe it advances their political aims – just look at the big void where the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland should be.

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The difficulty is that the British government hasn’t really “conceded” to Brussels or to Ireland as far as the border goes, but to reality. Regular readers should be able to join in with the chorus now, but here goes: if you have customs and regulatory divergence, you have to have border checks and the return of a hard border. The only two ways to avoid that are either for a measure of regulatory alignment (or convergence, depending on your perspective) between the Republic of Ireland AKA the EU27 and Northern Ireland, or for a measure of regulatory alignment between the Republic of Ireland AKA the EU27 and the United Kingdom.

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Any deal involving a hard border hits against the Irish government and ends in no deal. Any deal involving alignment or convergence between the Republic and Northern Ireland is unacceptable to the DUP and ends in no deal, an early election or perhaps both. Some Conservative MPs are hopeful that more money for Northern Ireland could turn the DUP around on the measure, or that the fear of Jeremy Corbyn will keep them in line. What that misunderstands is that the DUP’s big political project is the maintenance of the Union. Everything else – the exact degree of regulatory overlap between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, how much extra money heads to Northern Ireland, Brexit, everything – is secondary to the big prize which is the defence and entrenchment of the status quo.

That’s why the regulatory “convergence” and “alignment” stuff is a little more than just different words for the same thing: convergence means the adoption of the rules of the Republic, alignment that the rules simply line up. The Spectator’s Katy Balls puts it well: it’s like the difference between “a couple who are seeing each other and a couple that is dating”: small, yes, but on such differences unions can founder or prosper.

So the DUP are not going to give way on their big project. That leaves May with two options: to try to convince the cabinet to support a measure of regulatory alignment for the whole of the United Kingdom, or to leave without a deal.