by Frank Schnittger
Thu Oct 10th, 2019 at 01:27:35 PM EST
DUP defensive cunning misses big picture of being laughed out of court
In 2015, towards the end of a previous Stormont crisis, then Democratic Unionist Party leader and first minister Peter Robinson found himself in a corner. He had threatened to bring down power-sharing if devolution was not suspended over an IRA murder. However, the British government had called his bluff. So the DUP commenced an arcane series of rolling resignations, with ministers standing down for a week, resuming their posts just in time to avoid triggering an election, then standing down again.
It was a classic DUP solution under Robinson's tenure, stretching laws and promises to the limit to construct an elaborate face-saving mechanism. But the DUP leader had misjudged Northern Ireland's sense of the absurd. The resignations were promptly christened "the hokey cokey" and became a joke from which Robinson's authority never recovered. He announced his retirement from politics two months later.
There is an unmistakable echo of the hokey-cokey in the DUP's offer of a Brexit deal, and not just because it has one leg in the single market and another out of the customs union. There is the same narrow focus on defensive cunning, while missing the big picture of being laughed out of court. Each part of the offer can be justified in terms of a red line or a trade-off but the whole thing adds up to an unworkable mess.
This is proof the DUP is serious about the deal, even if British prime minister Boris Johnson is not.
The DUP has manoeuvred itself into advocating a regulatory sea border, which until now it has denounced as anathema to the union. It has presented this as the result of its unprecedented influence over the British government. The DUP would not have exposed itself to the inevitable criticism from other unionists and the unease of its supporters if it believed it had a better option. Of course, many other Brexit outcomes are possible but this may be the last chance the DUP has to claim it shaped a deal in unionism's interests. It has chosen to offer this deal and to defend it in increasingly strident terms as the ridicule has mounted.
DUP leader Arlene Foster has been christened "two borders Foster" by the Ulster Unionist Party, which also coined the term hokey-cokey. How much longer will her authority last?
However, the DUP is not playing in the Stormont little league any more. There was no chance of its Brexit ruse going undetected and in any case the unionist veto is too central to its hopes of selling its deal to the unionist electorate. Once everyone immediately spotted what the party was up to, it was in no position to downplay it. Observers who say Stormont consent might be tweaked to salvage the deal are missing the point. As far as the DUP is concerned, a unionist veto is the only win in a deal that nobody else can see any advantages to whatsoever. Without it, the DUP has simply acceded to a sea border after saying it would it never do so.
Or as the UUP might put it, it has done the hokey-cokey and then turned around. And that's what it's all about.
In essence the DUP agreed to an extension of existing sanitary, phyto-sanitary and other controls in the Irish Sea to cover Single Markey regulatory rules as well, in return for a Unionist veto on any extension of the currently open border on the Island of Ireland four years after Brexit. For them, adding democratic accountability to the backstop is always about Unionist consent. Nationalists and others don't count.
Quite why they thought anyone else in N. Ireland or the Irish government would agree to this is one of life's mysteries, but they seemed genuinely shocked at the instant rejection it received. They have now conceded the principle of greater controls in the Irish sea, and gotten nothing in return. Dominic Cummings claims Varadker promised he would move on the border issue if he got this concession. The Irish government is adamant no such offer was made.
Doubtless that issue will be discussed by Varadker and Johnson today at (a previously secret) venue in Thornton Manor, on The Wirral, near Liverpool. Varadker was probably unwilling to reciprocate Johnson's Dublin visit with a visit to Downing Street. There seems to be an informal EU embargo on EU Heads of Government meeting Johnson there, perhaps because of fears of how the meeting will be spun afterwards by "unnamed Downing Street advisors"...
Sources in Dublin were last night playing down the chances of any breakthrough arising form the meeting. While reports from London suggested the meeting could lead to a breakthrough in time for next week's crunch EU summit in Brussels, several senior Irish sources played down this possibility.
The notice of the meeting, the wording of which was agreed between Government Buildings and Downing Street, said only that the talks would be "about the process for securing agreement for a Brexit deal" and not, Irish sources pointed out, about actually securing an agreement on the substance on how the UK leaves the EU.
Dublin has repeatedly refused to negotiate directly with the UK on Brexit, insisting that the negotiations can only take place between the British government and the EU taskforce under Michel Barnier.
Of course the backstop could be taken out of the Withdrawal Agreement entirely if similar provisions could be written into a revised inter-governmental element of the Good Friday Agreement which was concluded before A. 50 ever existed and assumed both Ireland and the UK would remain in the EU indefinitely.
Whatever the mechanism chosen, there is no way the Irish government could agree to the DUP having a veto on the maintenance of an open border, but might agree to a cross-community mechanism whereby both nationalists and unionists would have to agree to a change in the current status quo.
This would probably cost Johnson the DUP's support, but at this stage, would anyone care? Johnson would have a deal he could go to the country with, and the current House of Commons with an anti-Boris majority won't pass any deal Boris might come up with anyway.
The Cranberries: Ode To My Family
Understand the things I say
Don't turn away from me
'Cause I spent half my life out there
You wouldn't disagree
D'you see me, d'you see
Do you like me, do you like me standing there
D'you notice, d'you know
Do you see me, do you see me
Does anyone care?
Unhappiness, where's when I was young
And we didn't give a damn
'Cause we were raised
To see life as a fun and take it if we can
My mother, my mother she'd hold me
Did she hold me, when I was out there
My father, my father, he liked me
Oh he liked me, does anyone care?
Understand what I've become
It wasn't my design
And people everywhere think
Something better than I am
But I miss you, I miss
'Cause I liked it, 'cause I liked it
When I was out there
D'you know this, d'you know