DUP's insistence that north remains lock-stepped with Britain fails to stand up to scrutiny
Differences between Northern Ireland and Britain extend far beyond accents and paper money. Political Correspondent John Manley finds that DUP's insistence that the north remains lock-stepped with Britain fails to stand up to scrutiny...
IN recent weeks the DUP has laboured its belief that any Brexit withdrawal deal must preserve the 'integrity of the United Kingdom'. According to this mantra, there must be no divergence between the region's status and that of Britain, which translates as citizens enjoying the same entitlements whether they reside in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. People, goods and services too must enjoy unrestricted movement within the so-called UK single market.
It may be a fine ideal but in reality it doesn't happen – and in some instances the differences are at the behest of the DUP.
The botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) isn't often cited as an example of where legislation in Britain and the north aren't aligned but it's worth remembering that this very costly divergence was down to the then minister for enterprise, trade and investment Arlene Foster, now the DUP leader.
Mrs Foster famously admitted that she never read the legislation before it was laid before the assembly. Had she bothered, there may have been an eleventh hour intervention that helped preserve the integrity of the UK while preventing the huge overspend that has led to a public inquiry.
The reasons why the British RHI scheme was not duplicated on this side of the Irish Sea are for Sir Patrick Coghlin and his inquiry panel to establish but the reasons for other areas of difference are often down to an ideological stance.
Take the transfer test, for example. It's more than 40 years since the 11-plus was phased out in England, Scotland and Wales, as it was regarded as unfair and perpetuating social inequality. However, the DUP, along with others, has consistently opposed efforts to follow the example in Britain and continues to support academic selection for 11-year-olds.
The party's policy on women's reproductive rights, is also at variance with what is available 'on the mainland'. The DUP is not alone among the north's political parties in opposing the introduction of 1967 Abortion Act, which makes terminations available up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. However, the party has so far signalled that it also opposes any relaxation of Northern Ireland's abortion law to allow terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
The DUP's adherence to Christian values was also in evidence when the party helped block efforts to align Stormont legislation on equal marriage with Westminster, which legalised marriage between same sex couples in 2014. Three years ago, a majority of MLAs voted in favour of introducing same sex marriage in Northern Ireland but the DUP deployed a petition of concern to block the move
Other areas where the north's devolved legislation differs from Britain include gambling, pub opening hours and, before the executive collapsed last year, the DUP was happy to advocate a separate Northern Ireland corporation tax rate.
In regard to the DUP's claim that there can be 'no regulatory border down the Irish Sea', it's worth noting that checks are already carried out on many goods moving between Northern Ireland and Britain. Inspectors from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs are permanently in place at the ports of Belfast, Larne and Warrenpoint, along with the region's three airports.
Their role is to carry out health checks on livestock, products of animal origin, and plant material.
The above examples illustrate that maintaining the integrity of the UK isn't so much absolute as à la carte.