by Frank Schnittger
Thu Sep 12th, 2019 at 08:48:25 AM EST
Newton Emerson has been the foremost unionist commentator on political affairs in Ireland over the past few years. In common with almost all unionists he couldn't quite understand why Brexit was an existential threat to the Good Friday Agreement, the peace process and any Irish government, no matter how mild mannered or moderate its chief protagonists. Somehow Brexit was going to be a fact of life and we were all going to have to "just get on with it".
To be clear, Newton, like the 56% in N. Ireland who voted Remain (including 40% of protestants), was against Brexit, and decried what he called the DUP's "recreational anti-nationalism" which saw Brexit as an opportunity to really antagonise nationalists without serious consequences.
In common with most of the British establishment, the DUP never thought the referendum would pass. They thought they could have their cake and eat it: really annoy the nationalists, and then just whistle in the air and carry on as if nothing had happened, all the while grinning at how they had outsmarted their sworn enemies.
But when the UK electorate called their bluff and actually voted for Brexit, they were in a bind: They could have declared that as the vast majority in N. Ireland has voted to Remain, they would respect that position and, for the first time in their history, take up a leadership position representing all communities in Northern Ireland. It would have done so much to reduce cross-community tensions, consolidate the peace process, normalise N. Ireland politics, and gain the grudging respect of even hard line nationalists.
Instead they chose to retreat into their sectarian ghettoes and double down on their mistake. They adopted a hard line pro-Brexit position, found allies in the hard-right European Research Group (ERG) of Tory Europhobes, and generally became more Farage like than Farage himself.
Again, none of this would have mattered much had Theresa May not made her ill-fated decision to go for an even greater majority in the 2017 general election which ended up handing the DUP the balance of power. Now they were going to have to put their money where there mouths were, and actually deliver on their promises.
To be fair, many DUP members and elected representatives are convinced Brexiteers. They believe that the UK is being held back by meddling Brussels bureaucrats, and that freed from the constraints of a sclerotic European economy, they can go out and conquer the world, like the British empire once did. Indeed they owe their very existence in Ireland to that empire successfully colonising Ireland.
It is difficult for many in Europe to grasp the mentality behind all of this. The closest analogue I can think of are the former Rhodesian and South African whites who believed that God had given them stewardship over their African lands and peoples and it was their job to civilise the natives, teach them the bible, put some manners on them, and generally rule the roost. The sense of entitlement is intense: they are God's elect and the moral superiors of all others.
But Newton doesn't belong to that sectarian tribe. He is part of the "sensible" middle ground of unionist opinion more concerned with making an honest buck and making a success of the N. Ireland economy. It has gradually dawned on him and them that Brexit, and particularly a no deal Brexit, represents an existential threat to their community and way of life as well. Not only could it re-ignite the Troubles, but it could wipe out much of the N. Ireland economy and put its existence as a separate state-let at risk.
Once it became clear that Sinn Fein wouldn't re-start the N. Ireland Assembly and Executive - dependent on at least minimal cross-community tolerance and support - and the Irish government wouldn't bend on its insistence on the backstop, the writing was on the wall. Although he is re-writing his own history to some extent, Newton makes clear, in this morning's Irish Times column, that reality is about to hit, and hit hard...
Two U-turns will leave DUP in a spin
The Democratic Unionist Party has five weeks to perform arguably the biggest U-turn in Northern Ireland's history, and certainly the fastest.
It is hard to see how it will not be overwhelmed by the task.
Unique arrangements for Northern Ireland have always been the only plausible outcome of Brexit, yet the DUP has portrayed this to its voters as a calamity only it could prevent.
Those arrangements will be now be agreed over its head; and it has no choice but to sell them as a success.
The party has not lost all influence at Westminster. Its 10 MPs still matter to a beleaguered minority government and British prime minister Boris Johnson still sees value in unionist endorsement for whatever deal he can cobble together.
But the DUP has lost the balance of power, after very obviously squandering it.
Perversely, a party with no MPs is the British government's main concern.
The Brexit Party, Nigel Farage's latest vehicle, must be satisfied - or more accurately, neutralised - for the Conservatives to be confident of winning the next election.
No deal would have accomplished that, but the Commons has ruled it out. So a deal must be sincerely attempted at the European Council meeting in five weeks' time if the United Kingdom is to leave the European Union at the end of October - the test Johnson has set for himself and to which the Brexit Party will hold him.
The Brexit Party does not care if the price of Brexit is a border down the Irish Sea. Its English nationalism increasingly looks like the opposite of unionism. The DUP has long been aware, in prescient detail, of the danger this poses. Immediately after the 2017 general election, when the DUP was negotiating its confidence-and-supply agreement with Johnson's predecessor Theresa May, it proposed she appoint Farage to the House of Lords or give him a role on her Brexit negotiating team so he would not rebuild his Ukip brand and drag the government towards no deal.
People often look at the mess the DUP has made of Brexit and ask why the party did not see it coming, but it is much worse than that: the DUP saw it all coming and made a mess of it anyway. This is an ominous portent for its ability to turn everything around by next month.
It could all have been so different. The DUP exercised its veto on Theresa May's original deal and forced her to change the backstop from the EU's original proposal of a N. Ireland backstop to an all UK backstop. This alarmed the sleeping giant of English nationalism that the UK could be trapped within the Customs Union and Single Market (CUSM) indefinitely, unable to control EU immigration or negotiate its own trade deals.
It is not clear whether Theresa May's original deal (with the N.I. only backstop) which was never put to the House of Commons would have passed at that time had the DUP not raised the alarm. Expectations in the UK as to what could be achieved from a Brexit deal were still very unrealistic at the time. Theresa May was rapidly loosing the faith and confidence of her hard line supporters in any case.
But in absolutely characteristic fashion the DUP overplayed its hand. It wanted to have its cake and eat it: full access to the CUSM, no barriers to trade with the UK, and all the alleged freedoms of leaving the EU at the same time. It was "NO SURRENDER" in a different form. It was to be all or nothing, and having previously become accustomed to having it all, the DUP are going to find it impossible to accept coming away with nothing.
It's not all over bar the shouting of course. Newton seems confident that Boris will make the N. Ireland only backstop deal with the EU and get it passed by the House of Commons, rebrand it as an enormous victory and win the subsequent general election, but I am not so sure.
Firstly, no one in the House of Commons will be fooled into thinking that this is anything other than a reheated version of Theresa May's original deal. The DUP will find it very difficult to vote for that, as will quite a few hard-line ERG "ultras" who would much prefer a no deal Brexit in any case.
Secondly, Boris has made enemies of the 20 MPs he has expelled who will be loath to hand him a victory, especially as it will be little changed from what Boris helped sabotage under Theresa May.
Thirdly, the Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens as ChangeUK are now all avowedly, unapologetically, and uncompromisingly supporters of Remain, with or without a second referendum.
And Finally Labour has now committed to putting any credible deal to a second referendum, and won't simply give Boris Johnson's deal a pass in the House of Commons. Even Labour Brexiteers will find it difficult to hand Boris a victory which he can then exploit at the polls.
About the only thing the House of Commons can agree on, after the prorogation scandal and threats not to obey the law, is that Boris Johnson is not the leader to carry this process forward.
So an A.50 extension it will be, with or without Boris Johnson at the helm. If he has even a semblance of dignity and honour he would, of course resign at that point. We shall see. With the EU having made clear no further negotiations are possible on the Withdrawal Agreement, the only possible rationale for the extension is to organise a second referendum. That will take time, and elections are not traditionally held mid winter in the UK.
So prepare for a Spring referendum and general election with caretaker PM Corbyn at the helm, negotiating better deals for both Leave (via the Political Declaration) and Remain (a deal with the Commission on state Aid, nationalisation of key infrastructure, workers rights, consumer protection, climate change etc.) and promising to abide by the outcome.
As I said in my comment at the bottom of Newton's article:
At last the penny has dropped! For three years Newton has been in denial along with most of the unionist community in believing that Brexit was a fait accompli and it would be the nationalists who would have to come to terms with it in some shape or form. In common with most unionists and all Brexiteers, he couldn't imagine an EU that would stand united, resolute, and in total solidarity with one of its smaller members. Somehow the EU was going to have to bend to the will of the DUP, as Theresa May had done.
But the EU and the Irish government have been clear: There will be no deal without a backstop, and it is up to the UK to decide whether this is on an all UK basis, or on an all Ireland basis, and that decision has now been made. Boris Johnson will dress it up as some sort of "practical arrangements" to overcome the impracticalities of placing customs infrastructure on hundreds of roads across the 500km border, but the effect will be the same.
Welcome to the real world.