Arlene Foster may have travelled to Brussels today, but the DUP has not moved at all. Despite hopeful noises emanating from Downing Street last night, it is still implacably opposed to a regulatory border in the Irish Sea of any kind.
That means, contrary to reports last night, that Foster and her MPs will oppose a solution that involves checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, as well as in the other direction.
A DUP statement released ahead its meeting with Michel Barnier briefly stirred the government’s hopes, as it emphasised: “Great Britain is Northern Ireland’s biggest market. Over 70 per cent of all goods leaving Belfast port are destined for Great Britain. To create a barrier to that trade would be catastrophic.”
Downing Street chose to interpret this as a sign that the DUP’s interpretation of the December agreement with the EU was the same as theirs. The text includes a commitment to “no new regulatory barriers…between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom” and “the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market”.
Some in government saw helpful ambiguity here – the emphasis is on access to Great Britain from Northern Ireland, and not the other way round, leaving space for a solution that saw checks on goods going east from, say, Liverpool, as long as nothing was checked leaving Belfast.
But the DUP see no ambiguity at all. A source says last night’s reports were “wishful thinking, but sadly reflective of an informed briefing of what the government think is doable”. Ominously, they add: “Not sure it ends well.”
They are especially bewildered by Downing Street’s apparent attempts to interpret the December text afresh, and by the inference that they would consider checks on goods bound for Northern Ireland somehow different to those on goods bound for Great Britain. “No new regulatory barriers. Unfettered access to the UK’s internal market. I’m pretty sure markets are places where you can buy and sell!” They also point out that Theresa May made all this clear in the Commons in December.
All this considered, it is indeed difficult to see how this ends well. When it comes to the DUP and Brexit, the government has too often resorted to Micawberism, vainly hoping that some concession from the unionists will eventually turn up. The prime minister’s plans can’t work otherwise. But Foster made clear this morning that it won’t, as she did repeatedly last week. That Downing Street is now parsing press releases in the hope of changing that reality reflects just how deep a mess they are in on the issue of the border.
With time running out, it is increasingly clear that they cannot continue to veer between attempting to indulge the DUP with platitudes about the union and attempting to bounce them into things they ought to know they cannot accept. Carrying on like this only corrodes trust further, and guarantees even stronger opposition to compromise. The point of the DUP, of course, is that they don’t compromise – or at least aren’t seen to. Their refusal to budge means May is going to have to disappoint someone on the border.