This column appeared on broadsheet.ie on Oct 23rd, 2018
Many, many years ago I went to see the great Billy Connolly perform live at the Gaiety theatre. He talked about his brief time working as a riveter in the Clyde side shipyards.
At one point he asked the audience if we recalled those old British Pathé newsreels of jaunty, merry Glasgow shipbuilders waving their hats and cheering loudly as the ship, on they had been working, was launched and slid into the Clyde.
As Connolly reminded us, though the newsreels portrayed these workers as delighting in the completion of another fine ship, the simple reality what they were actually waving goodbye to their jobs as most of them would be laid off the next day.
Today’s DUP is very much like those shipbuilders. In happily cheering-on the prospect of a hard Brexit they are celebrating the end of any economic future for Northern Ireland.
In going for hard Brexit, Arlene Foster, Sammy Wilson and most – though notably, not all – of the DUP leadership team are opting for the worst of all possible worlds.
They stand on the periphery of the UK, as currently constituted, and demand all the disadvantages of a full-on Brexit with its promise of unspecified future international trade deals, without any attempt to hold on to the advantages that the EU has brought.
What has been an offer from Michel Barnier and the EU in the withdrawal talks is a form of Special Economic Zone (SEZ) for Northern Ireland. Several months ago a colleague of mine, Tom Hayes and I, put together a short paper setting out how special economic zone for Northern Ireland might operate.
Becoming a SEZ would give the North, an economy that remains way over dependent on the public sector, the potential to become a gateway to the European Union not just for the UK, but for those with whom the UK believes it will soon be able to do great trade deals.
The advantages of a NI SEZ were not necessarily a long way down the road. Making Northern Ireland a special economic zone would make Belfast, Derry and Newry attractive locations for those small and medium companies who will need to move their operations from a-post-Brexit-GB but are finding Dublin too costly
In rejecting this proposal Arlene Foster has shattered not just the illusion that the DUP is Northern Ireland’s business-friendly political party, but also the idea that it is a party of hard political pragmatists wanting the best for their community.
It is now neither.
As its approach to Brexit has shown, the DUP is prepared to sacrifice businesses large and small, national and international and they 1000s of jobs they bring in favour of political point scoring on its artificially constructed constitutional question.
I say “artificially constructed” because the Joint EU/UK Report from December last year, as signed and agreed by the British government. writes the Good Friday Agreement into the Brexit deal, and does it several times (see articles 42 – 56).
The Good Friday Agreement underpins Northern Ireland’s constitutional position,reaffirms the principle of consent and states that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK cannot change without the support a majority. Note:this means a simple majority, not a weighted one as some try to pretend.
The EU acknowledges all of this, so what is the DUP’s problem?
Using Sammy Wilson’s arguments, surely the inability to use Northern Ireland sterling banknotes in shops, pubs or stores in London or Manchester is a threat to the Union?
Of course, it isn’t. The problem here is that the few remaining backwoodsmen who still baulk at the consent principle and the Good Friday Agreement see Brexit as a sly way to weaken that Agreement and are being facilitated by a weakened DUP leader who tries to mask her weakness by talking tough.
The DUP’s much vaunted Westminster deal which kept Theresa May in office after the last British general election is all but over, though it may take a few weeks for the formal acknowledgement of this.
The one-time party of “no surrender” has managed by political petulance and stridency to surrender any leverage it had over May and chosen instead to become fellow travellers of the Johnson and Rees-Mogg Tory rump.
Foster, who had shown signs of wanting a better relationship with the South, now seems content to now sacrifice Northern Ireland’s viability in a desperate attempt to save herself.
But, her time as DUP leader is limited. It is quite likely that she will not still be leader by the start of the second quarter of 2019.
Though Arlene’s leadership is doomed, it is not because of Brexit. It is due to her inattentiveness as First Minister as recently exposed during the RHI “Cash for Ash” inquiry.
That inquiry is due to report sometime after Easter next year. Most expect the report to be highly critical of Foster as both Minister First Minister and her stewardship of the Northern Ireland Executive.
Neither the moderate or hard-line wings of the DUP will be happy to keep a damaged and discredited Foster as leader after the report. Especially in the aftermath of Brexit with the possibility of either a Westminster election or a Second Referendum, not to mention the possible return of an Executive and Assembly in the North.
It is more than likely that Foster will – just before the report is published – be persuaded to stand aside for the good of the party and make way for new leader.
But who will that leader be?
If the DUP is wise – and there is little evidence around just now to suggest that it is – it will pick somebody from the next generation.
The months following the UK’s formal exit from the EU at the end of March are going to be very tricky, even if there is an extended transition period.
The political spotlight that now focuses on Northern Ireland will likely move to Scotland, post Brexit, as it once again looks to independence within the EU, rather than dependence within the UK.
As the UK slowly comes apart and its current intransigence is seen by Unionists, in hindsight, to have contributed to its dismantling.
While the binary nature of Northern Ireland politics means that the DUP will not disappear within the next few electoral cycles, its long-term future cannot be guaranteed.
As I have said here many times Brexit will change politics in Northern Ireland. This will have major implications, many positive, for parties on this side of the border, but hanging around and waiting to see how that works out, rather than trying to shape it now, is a strategic error.