Opinion

Newton Emerson: Rather than take credit for deal, DUP is rushing over the cliff edge

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds surrounded by anti-Brexiteers in Westminster in September
DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds surrounded by anti-Brexiteers in Westminster in September DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds surrounded by anti-Brexiteers in Westminster in September

Rather than take some credit for the best EU withdrawal deal Northern Ireland was ever likely to get, the DUP has decided to push its Brexit brinkmanship over the cliff edge. Realistically it was never going to do otherwise, having equated scanning barcodes on shipping containers with breaking up the union.

Of the predictability, arrogance and calamitousness of this - to unionism in particular - little more needs to be said. Less noted is the absurdity of causing disaster by demanding a guarantee against disaster. The backstop and its sequencing as a precondition have needlessly dominated negotiations and derailed them again and again, yet despite this becoming increasingly obvious, Dublin and Brussels proved just as stubborn as the DUP. An attempt to acquire insurance has somehow managed to set the house on fire. There is blame enough for this to go around.

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How far should you take an objection on principle that is largely meaningless in practice? With the all-UK backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement addressing most border issues on land and at sea, the DUP has refocused its fury on Northern Ireland becoming a “rule-taker” on EU single market regulations - mainly product standards. As Britain changes its rules, the DUP adds, a regulatory sea border will emerge.

There is a genuine issue here of a democratic deficit plus a theoretical risk of cross-channel divergence. But in reality, every exporter must observe the standards of its target markets, so Northern Ireland and Britain will both always shadow EU regulations. The EU in turn aligns with its overseas markets, meaning standards are increasingly set at a global level. Stormont has never had the slightest influence over any of this. Northern Ireland’s MPs could be said to provide as much accountability on product standards as exists anywhere, even if that is effectively zero.

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Northern Ireland’s main business organisations, including the Ulster Farmers’ Union, have backed the Withdrawal Agreement and implicitly criticised the DUP, which has hit back in turn - an apparently striking response from what is seen as the party of business. However, Northern Ireland’s business sector tends to lobby the civil service directly - a culture that developed during decades of direct rule. Bamboozled officials then write recommendations for ministers to skim through and sign, as RHI revealed. For the sector to challenge a party directly and publicly is a new feature in our politics - one that Brexit could make permanent.

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If Brexit had not grabbed the headlines, this week would have been dominated by a green energy scandal worse than RHI. A Stormont subsidy scheme for large-scale digesters to produce biogas from chicken waste has been discovered to have wasted £800 million, drawn in speculators from Britain, caused an ammonia pollution crisis across Northern Ireland - and to have involved a familiar mix of confused civil servants, questionable Ofgem regulators and aggressive business lobbying. In a timely Brexit link, all this took place in order to circumvent the EU environmental regulations. It is a bit much for us to argue about rule taking when we have yet to reach the stage of rule obeying.

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There was more unfortunate timing when civil service chief David Sterling announced £500 million for late night bus and train services, to encourage Christmas shopping in Belfast after the Primark fire. Alas, the following day, the BBC reported figures it had obtained from Translink about attacks on staff, described by trade union Unite as “rampant”.

Late nights and the festive season were mentioned as especially dangerous.

“We dread coming into the Christmas market time with huge crowds and people drinking,” one train conductor told the BBC.

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A misunderstanding has arisen after campaigners uncovered Ministry of Defence paperwork on the 1972 McGurk’s Bar atrocity, with a log entry reading: “RUC have a line that the bomb in the pub was a bomb designed to be used elsewhere, left in the pub to be picked up by the Provisional IRA.”

The expression ‘have a line’ has been viewed as suspicious. However, this is simply a term officialdom and the media use for any public statement. It carries no other connotations.

The RUC’s initial line in 1972 was wrong, caused great distress to victims and its provenance remains contentious - but a reference to it as ‘a line’ provides no further insight.

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Theresa May’s leadership hangs by a thread, Arlene Foster’s leadership is rumoured to be in trouble but North Down MLA Steven Agnew remains unquestioned leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, despite announcing his resignation four months ago. Agnew said then he would step down “in the autumn” but winter is two weeks away with no sign of a replacement. This cannot be a case of waiting for the party conference - the Greens hold theirs in spring, which seems fitting.

Agnew met the Labour leadership at Westminster and the Irish government in Dublin this week and unsuccessfully sought a meeting with May last week, all while being described without caveat as party leader. Perhaps May should have agreed to meet him. She might have found his survival an inspiration.

newton@irishnews.com