Opinion

William Scholes: May's Brexit Hesperus could still wreck DUP

DUP leader Arlene Foster alongside four of her party's MPs in the Great Hall on Parliament Buildings as she torpedoed Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit proposals for the Irish border. Picture by David Young/PA Wire

ONE conclusion to be salvaged from Monday's Wreck of the Hesperus is that Theresa May and her wretched, divided cabinet are as magnificently skilled at being politically inept in the same way that a midget has a talent for being short.

As a case study in snatching defeat from the jaws of a-sort-of-victory, Mrs May's humiliation through a phone call from Arlene Foster after the hors d'oeuvres in Brussels is hard to beat.

When it ends - if it ever does - one of the enduring images of this Brexit shambles will surely be that of an agitated Mrs Foster, flanked by a praetorian guard of four DUP MPs with frowns bigger than their heads, torpedoing Mrs May's Irish border proposal all the way from Parliament Building's Great Hall.

That the Prime Minister was scuttled by Mrs Foster, a rival in the political ineptitude stakes but without Mrs May's awareness of the importance of tone in public discourse, is, depending on where you stand, either a beautiful or tragic irony. Maybe it's both.

Many commentators and politicians in Britain seem to have reckoned that Monday's intervention by Mrs Foster - albeit presumably reading from a script prepared by Nigel 'the mighty' Dodds and whichever factotum works her Twitter account these days - is evidence of the DUP leader's towering political acumen and the party's negotiating prowess.

Equally, many people in Northern Ireland will have looked on aghast at such interpretations.

They will have concluded that anyone who holds such views identifies themselves as an eejit - which, for English readers, is what we in 'the province' call a dunce.

Like Mithridates, who gained immunity to poison by being exposed to increasing doses of it, long experience of the DUP means its behaviour is more often than not met by the populace with a shrug of the shoulders: "What else do you expect? It's the DUP."

Observers in Britain, newly introduced to this obscure Ulster party, are understandably newfangled by its machinations.

Conservative MP Nadine Dorris - a sometime contestant, if that is the correct word, on I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! - is but one example of the more breathless reactions to the DUP this week.

She tweeted: "Total respect for the DUP. Hardened negotiators. After Good Friday/peace in NI and Irish politics in general - we are witnessing a master class in how it's done. #Respect"

Anyone with a passing interest in politics, which presumably includes even Conservative MPs keen to impress Ant and Dec, should also know that the DUP were emphatically not involved in the Good Friday agreement negotiations.

They should also know that Arlene Foster only joined the DUP because of its steadfast opposition to the Good Friday agreement - though of course that opposition became a lot less steadfast once it got a whiff of power, influence and money; English politicians take note.

Because Westminster politics is generally conducted in a relatively sensible and, let's be honest, undramatic fashion, from a British perspective the crisis-deal-crisis rhythm of Stormont can seem to have an air of excitement - the whiff of cordite, dare it be said - about it.

Therein lies the notion, which has gathered momentum this week, that the DUP are "hardened negotiators".

They are undoubtedly hardened. How could they be anything but? Politics here is a Mobius strip of negotiations, without beginning or end, which would harden anyone.

But being a hardened, as in an experienced, negotiator is not the same as being any good at it.

At this point, the confidence and supply arrangement the DUP struck with the Conservative party following June's general election is usually wheeled out as exhibit one.

However, it's difficult to see how even the DUP could have mucked up that one; that Mr 'the mighty' Dodds picked up a 'negotiator of the year' prize at The Spectator magazine's awards is arguably more a two-fingers to Mrs May's woeful predicament than a reflection of any great shakes on the DUP's part.

And despite the eye-catching £1 billion sum attached to the deal, only a tiny proportion of that money has made it to Belfast.

The rest is contingent, at least for now, on the Stormont executive being resuscitated.

That, though, may not happen for a very long time.

Therein lies the real evidence of just how poor the hardened DUP team is at negotiating.

It is almost 12 months since the fatally dysfunctional Sinn Féin and DUP government imploded but even after periods of hardened negotiating, a revival of even that dismal circus caravan looks eons away.

The longer Stormont remains moribund, the more power will leach from Mrs Foster in the direction of Mr 'the mighty' Dodds.

In the meantime, Mrs Foster will undoubtedly revel in the British media describing her as 'leader of the Northern Ireland administration', which isn't even half true, and the DUP will enjoy perplexing London-based interviewers by insisting that it doesn't want a hard border while pursuing policies that make that an inevitability.

And then they will be stitched up the British government.

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