Northern Ireland news

Feargal Cochrane: DUP has done more in four years to promote Irish republican objectives than Sinn Féin achieved in decades

Professor Feargal Cochrane

LIFE truly is stranger than fiction but as odd as it might seem, the DUP has done more over the last four years to promote Irish republican objectives than Sinn Féin has achieved in several decades - one of the many ironic outcomes of the whole Brexit saga.

The DUP was initially quite pragmatic about Brexit and allowed a free vote within the party in the 2016 referendum. However, once the result came down in favour of the UK leaving the EU, the DUP became ardent supporters of Brexit and seemed to have the ear of the British government after the 2017 general election, giving them significant influence over it.

It all turned to dust of course, as their erstwhile allies in the Tory party including Prime Minister Boris Johnson cut them loose in October 2019 and did a deal with the EU that the DUP themselves cast as ‘the Betrayal Act’.

They could have prevented this calamity by supporting Theresa May’s Brexit deal with its infamous Irish Backstop dimension, which had broad support within nationalism and unionism, including a swathe of civil society organisations such as the Ulster Farmers' Union and many others.

Many saw it as the least worst option and a way of getting a Brexit deal across the line, avoiding a hard border in Ireland.

The DUP opposition to this version of Brexit in the House of Commons was a key reason why Theresa May’s deal failed. This was also why she resigned as prime minister and was replaced by Boris Johnson.

Once installed, Johnson proved a less reliable ally for the DUP as he turned around and did the very thing he had previously said that no British government could or should ever do.

He signed off on a Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union that is likely to see a border in the Irish Sea at the end of the Brexit transition period in January 2021.

Johnson is not the first prime minister that unionists have had difficulty with. Margaret Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement with the Irish government in 1985 much to unionist disappointment.

She did so because regardless of her personal feelings, it suited her political interests. As with Thatcher, so with Johnson.

In the end, Britain needed a deal with the EU more than it needed the support of the DUP – though to rub salt in the wound, it was once again the Irish government that Johnson abandoned them for.

In truth the DUP have been the author of their own misfortune.

They supported Brexit when they did not have to. They ignored the fact that Northern Ireland voted remain in the referendum by a healthy majority (56 per cent) - denying the self-determination and democratic consent of their own devolved region.

They squandered the enormous political leverage they had after the 2017 general election and a Brexit deal they could have helped Theresa May deliver, that would have prevented any border in the Irish Sea.

These decisions could have been avoided but have now resulted in the very thing they feared most – having additional barriers with the ‘mainland’.

They are now cast as their own jailers, with DUP environment minister Edwin Poots having to erect ‘entry control facilities’, effectively customs infrastructure, between Northern Ireland and ports in Great Britain, as a consequence of Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Act and the Northern Ireland Protocol.

So as things stand, the DUP have enabled a Brexit that is likely to augment calls for a border poll over Irish reunification and they have also authored a Brexit that is increasing the likelihood of a second independence referendum in Scotland –where there has been a consistent majority for independence.

A border poll that takes place in a context where the union has already ended (if Scotland votes for independence), in a context where a hard Brexit has degraded the economy, placed a hard border in Ireland and offers only an alliance with a right wing government in England, might look a lot less appealing for the key 20 per cent of voters in the middle who are likely to determine the issue.

By their own actions therefore, the DUP have undoubtedly done more to advance the issue of a border poll on Irish reunification and convert it from an academic thought experiment into a realistic prospect than Sinn Féin could have hoped to achieve since 2016.

If Johnson reneges on the UK’s current obligations within the Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland Protocol then a ‘no deal’ outcome to the current negotiations and a hard border in Ireland would be the likely consequence.

This would be severe for all sides, but is likely to drive the Scottish independence agenda and calls for a border poll in Northern Ireland even more urgently.

As Margaret Thatcher said at her last cabinet meeting in 1990 when she was unceremoniously dumped out of Downing Street by her own party, ‘It’s a funny old world’.

While unionists might not see the funny side, they should appreciate the irony.

:: Feargal Cochrane is Emeritus Professor of International Conflict Analysis at the University of Kent's School of Politics and International Relations and director of its Conflict Analysis Research Centre (Carc) from 2012-19. He is the author of the new book Breaking Peace – Brexit and Northern Ireland (Manchester University Press).

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