Leading article

DUP's unlikely role in border debate

As the DUP prepares for its annual conference this weekend, one topic which may not appear on the agenda is the remarkable way in which the party has unwittingly managed to push the future of the Irish border to the forefront of political discussion across Europe.

Nationalist parties in Ireland have made considerable efforts to raise the question over many years but have largely failed to gain significant attention outside their own support base.

In the post-Good Friday Agreement era, there was a clear sense in London and arguably Dublin that partition, while not quite forgotten, had been quietly downgraded as the main emphasis was given to developing the power-sharing structures at Stormont.

However, while the devolved administration was ultimately brought down over the DUP-linked Renewable Heat Incentive scandal which is now being examined by a public inquiry, it was that party's basic attitude towards issues of respect between the two main traditions which provided the catalyst for the collapse last January.

Although all sides had a degree of responsibility for the disintegration in relationships at Parliament Buildings, it was the DUP's aggressive approach towards the Irish language and on the wider stage over Brexit which proved to be a fundamental game changer.

It is known that some figures in the DUP identified the huge risks their party faced over last year's European referendum but were ultimately overruled by more excitable voices who were determined to play what became an active and highly contentious role in the leave campaign.

Since the result was declared 17 months ago, with Northern Ireland and Scotland decisively opting to stay in the EU while voters in England and Wales ensured a Brexit by the narrowest of margins, the final break-up of the UK has been increasingly discussed.

Irish nationalists, north and south, may well have difficulty believing how events have moved so suddenly and firmly in their favour, but it should be obvious that a huge and unprecedented opportunity has now presented itself.

Almost every international observer has concluded that Theresa May's government is struggling badly in its Brexit negotiations and the EU Council President Donald Tusk said bluntly on Friday that much more progress was needed immediately both on the UK's so far unspecified but massive divorce bill and crucially on the Irish border.

When the DUP MP Sammy Wilson launched another attack on the EU last week, and accused the Irish government of signing up with `the European establishment to thwart the referendum result,' he spectacularly missed the point.

As the dubious deal between the DUP and the Conservatives at Westminster came under an increasing spotlight, the former Tory chancellor Ken Clarke said there were unmistakable signs that Brexit would result in a new border between the EU and the UK which ran along the Irish Sea.

Mr Wilson, who represents Larne, could yet have to explain why travellers passing through that port suddenly have to produce their passports, but that may be the least of the difficulties facing the DUP in the coming months.

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