Are the DUP taking a risk with Boris Johnson's Brexit plans?

Arlene Foster's electoral rivals spy opportunity in her apparent u-turn.

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One of the most notable things about the Irish border proposals Boris Johnson presented to Jean-Claude Juncker today is the DUP’s endorsement of them. For the duration of the Brexit process, Arlene Foster and her MPs have again and again rejected any solution that involves regulatory divergence between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 

Yet the government’s plans — to which Foster has publicly given her imprimatur — do involve regulatory divergence. They would at the bare minimum require checks on goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, something the DUP always opposed under Theresa May. It’s important to note that this objection to new east-west controls isn’t merely an outworking of their blanket opposition to any new divergence, but something they ruled out specifically. 

For a period last year, Downing Street got into the habit of parsing DUP press releases in the hope of finding a loophole in its position. In November, they briefed friendly journalists that Foster’s 10 MPs would accept checks between on goods travelling to Northern Ireland. They had, after all, never said they wouldn’t. The response from DUP MPs was as withering as it was unambiguous. “The last time I checked,” one told me at the time, “markets are places where you can buy and sell.”

So why the acceptance now? In recent weeks the DUP has taken to saying it has never objected to Northern Ireland-specific Brexit solutions per se, which is true - Foster said so in a joint letter with Martin McGuinness in 2016, and in the party’s 2015 manifesto - if not really tonally consistent with everything they’ve been saying at Westminster since December 2017. The party has also got something it has been asking for for nearly two years: a Stormont veto on new divergence, which will kick in four years into the UK’s new trading relationship with the EU and require a renewed mandate every four years thereafter.

But the fact remains that the DUP at least appear to have u-turned. What sort of price can it expect to pay? Its two main electoral rivals, the Ulster Unionist Party and Traditional Unionist Voice, have both condemned its acquiescence to the government’s proposals. 

Here’s outgoing UUP leader Robin Swann:  

“The Prime Minister and the DUP are fooling no-one with these proposals. This new protocol should be deeply concerning for all those who have the long term economic and constitutional welfare of Northern Ireland and its people at heart. 

“Northern Ireland would be locked into continual political debates about Brexit and alignment with the rest of the UK or EU. They would set the theme of every Assembly and Westminster election. It plunges Northern Ireland into a referendum in the Assembly Chamber every four years with high stakes consequences for our people. It will keep our businesses and agri-food sector in a perpetual cycle of uncertainty. 

“These proposals haven’t been thought through and would see DUP statements that Northern Ireland would leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom being flipped on their heads. Northern Ireland would become a hybrid part of the UK with a border up the Irish Sea. 

“This represents a road to Damascus conversion by the DUP and a very sharp u-turn on statements they made to the Northern Ireland public. The Prime Minister and the DUP were full of big talk. These proposals don’t offer them much of a fig leaf.”

TUV leader Jim Allister, meanwhile, similarly accuses them of breaking their word to unionist voters. 

What are we to make of the criticism? For now, at least, DUP are hegemonic within unionism, and have hitherto survived the Brexit process without paying a serious electoral penalty for its intransigence. It weathered council elections in May with only eight losses. Earlier this month, polling showed that 77 per cent of unionist voters would prefer no-deal to the backstop. Their electoral rivals have clearly calculated that this is an area of weakness. 

History tells us that unionist parties suffer electorally if they are seen to reverse ferret on the constitutional question. Indeed, the DUP leadership could confirm as much: Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson, her chief whip and likely successor, both quit the UUP in protest at the Good Friday Agreement. It has never recovered. In February 2008, in the early days of Ian Paisley’s partnership with Martin McGuinness, the DUP lost a council by-election in Dromore, Co Down, to the UUP after the TUV - formed in protest by Allister, a former DUP MEP, just two months earlier - performed strongly in its first electoral test.

For journalists, an annoying feature of Northern Ireland’s constitution is that council vacancies are now filled by co-option, rather than by-elections (which are now incredibly rare). So we are unlikely to get a decent opportunity to gauge the scale of unionist opposition to these plans. But, as much as Allister and Swann, who will stand down in the spring, exist to undermine the DUP, it is notable that they both spy the same opportunity here, given that their parties are very different beasts.

And it could well prove significant as the UUP considers just which of its much-diminished Assembly group might succeed Swann. Having lost much of its urban support to the centrist, non-sectarian Alliance in recent years, many had assumed the party would return to the liberalising course charted by Swann’s predecessor Mike Nesbitt. The DUP’s vulnerability on Brexit may see them opt for a different course.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.