Holding all the cards?

Key parts of the DUP’s base in the farming and business sectors are fearful of the impact of a hard border and a hard Brexit on their economic interests, notes James Harvey.

That went well for the Democratic Unionist Party, didn’t it? All the cosying up to the Conservatives, all the talk by the European Research Group of defending the ‘precious union’ and, above all, Boris Johnson’s warm courtship of DUP leader Arlene Foster - even Jacob Rees-Mogg’s cameo guest appearances at DUP fringe meetings were as nothing when it came to the Commons votes on October 19 and 22.

Even before the European Union summit of heads of government gave its imprimatur to Johnson’s withdrawal deal, commentators were warning the DUP not to push their luck or to trust the Tories, when it came to the crunch. These warnings proved to be only too true for both the DUP and the warmer kind of unionist, when the outline of Boris Johnson’s and Leo Varadkar’s new cross-border dispensation was given its first public airing. When the more detailed version appeared over the weekend before the October 22 vote, unionist opposition grew only stronger.

The terms of the DUP’s opposition to both the withdrawal bill and the hasty parliamentary timetable for forcing it through were clearly set out in the Commons debates. Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson led the unionist charge in the discussions - aided unusually by independent and moderate unionist MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon. Although their initial attack was on the proposed customs arrangements in the deal and the creation of a ‘new border’ in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, they soon drew on a novel argument, based on the ways in which the consent arrangements outlined in the withdrawal deal were contrary to the Good Friday agreement. Readers may need reminding that the DUP opposed the agreement in 1998 and spent much of the next eight years attempting to undermine it. Their stated devotion to its power-sharing principles and the commitment to the politics of ‘cross-community consensus’ expressed by Dodds and company during the parliamentary sessions rang more than a little hollow, given the party’s history.

History is one place where we might start to understand the DUP’s current political predicament. It is certainly easy to locate its position within a long-established pattern of die-hard, ‘no surrender’ unionism. That type of talk is always a winner at election time for the DUP and it was this kind of intransigence that helped to undermine the Ulster Unionist Party’s predominant electoral position in the 2000s. The same themes were rehearsed yet again during the Brexit referendum campaign and in the political stasis that resulted from it. So appealing were these old tunes from the Orange band that the true believers in Brexit amongst the Tory ranks joined in the old refrain of ‘no surrender’ and ‘defend the union’. The sweetness of the tune was no doubt helped by the tight parliamentary arithmetic and the DUP’s proud possession of 10 votes that could save both Theresa May’s and Boris Johnson’s governments in a sticky situation.

So it proved to be before Johnson sacrificed the purity of the sacred union to reach a deal with the EU. Despite the bellowing of Wilson and the forensic menace of Dodds in the Commons chamber, the DUP cannot really have been surprised by what happened. It is politically expedient to show outrage and bluster about betrayal. But unionists have been here before many times since the 1920s.When either the interests of British capitalism or the Tories are at stake, Ulster unionists always take second place. The suspension of Stormont in 1972, the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974 and Hillsborough 1985 - each viewed as a betrayal of unionist supremacy in the Six Counties - were all the handiwork of Conservative governments.

The DUP MPs went into their parliamentary arrangement with the Tories with their eyes wide open: they were under no illusions about the Tories’ pragmatic attachment to the union and their 10 votes in the Commons. Promises of financial aid to Northern Ireland merely sealed the deal. Using this parliamentary situation and their bargaining power was sound politics from the DUP’s point of view. However, their ostensible strength at Westminster hid weaknesses at home. A majority of the Northern Irish electorate had voted to remain in the EU and key parts of the DUP’s base in the farming and business sectors were increasingly fearful of the impact of a hard border and a hard Brexit on their economic interests. As the possibilities of no deal grew, these business groups applied more pressure on the DUP leadership and counselled caution. Some, it seemed, were even prepared to tolerate remaining within EU customs, regulatory and single-market frameworks if the right form of words and a face-saving formula could be found. Even more red tape and paperwork for goods and services traded between Northern Ireland and Great Britain could be finessed with the right amount of political will and subtle pressure.

But the DUP faces other pressures - some self-inflicted or made much closer to home. Electorally the defence of the union and an unconditional restatement of ‘traditional unionism’ does the DUP no harm. Recent Westminster and Northern Ireland assembly elections saw those polarised communal politics come to the fore as usual. In the current stasis at Stormont there is nothing to be gained by making concessions or showing signs of weakness. The DUP’s recent meetings with loyalist paramilitaries and public displays of unease with any backsliding both strengthens and limits its hand. Unlike English Tories who flirt with unionism, they cannot row too far back on their public commitments. The DUP has to attend to all these different forces at home: in trying to play the kingmakers at Westminster it does not have the complete freedom of manoeuvre - so necessary if it is going to be a master of the parliamentary game.

It remains unclear how this phase of the game will unfold. Given the likelihood of a general election, the probable return of the 10 DUP MPs, and an unstable parliamentary situation, we could yet see a repeat of the Brexit quadrille between the DUP and the Tories (or even Labour if the numbers enforce it) in the very near future. In that situation, the DUP will continue to play a similar hand and a similar role in the parliamentary game. For a short period, it may be puffed up with importance, as its leaders tour the news studios and British party leaders hang on their every word.

But this sense of strength is illusory - both at Westminster and within the Six Counties. The economic and social power that underpinned unionist supremacy at Stormont is not going to return: no amount of rhetorical ghost-dancing by the DUP or loyalist paramilitaries is going to restore the ‘great wee province’ to its glory days of ‘no surrender’. Unionism has been dealt an historically losing hand: it cannot reshuffle the pack - only play as well as it can with the cards it has.

The events of the last few weeks have shown how limited those options are and that even in the hands of more imaginative players than Foster, Dodds and Wilson the odds remain firmly stacked against them.