The election result has made the Tories dependent on the DUP – the hardest of Hard Brexit parties. But the reality of Northern Irish politics may significantly soften the UK’s stance when it comes to talks with the EU
Founded by firebrand Protestant preacher, the late Ian Paisley, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is the only party that could give UKIP a run for its money on the Hard Brexit stakes.
It is also a party that campaigned hard for Brexit in Britain – a country where it does not stand candidates – buying up advertising singing the praises of a British exit from the bloc, including ad £250,000 wrap on the Metro newspaper.
British electoral laws on foreign donations and transparency do not apply in Northern Ireland, primarily as a sop t`o republicans Sinn Féin who have traditionally received a lot of financial support from the US. In the case of the Brexit campaign, however, this meant that no-one is quite sure where the cash came from to run DUP’s impressive ad buying campaign.
There’s no doubting the party’s Brexit bona fides, but does that mean DUP influence will harden the Tory stance when it comes to negotiations with the EU? Despite the party’s hard line on Brexit, the reality of politics on the ground in Northern Ireland means that any arrangement involving the DUP will be more complex than it might at first appear.
The party’s new found influence in Westminster isn’t without precedent. In the dog days of John Major’s Conservative government in the mid-1990s the then prime minister was forced into a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). The UUP barely exists anymore, having been outflanked by the DUP during the Northern Ireland peace process, which took a hardline – and at times anti-settlement – position.
The DUP’s natural ‘rejectionism’, however, is matched only by its game playing ability and a surprising tactical flexibility. Indeed, having vanquished the UUP for daring to talk to Sinn Féin, the DUP soon went into government with its old enemy.
Without a doubt, most Northern Irish unionists voted for Brexit – but not all did, and the majority of Irish nationalists voted Remain, seeing the EU as a vital link to the rest of Ireland. This reality will not change whatever the arrangement with the Tories.
While the DUP’s unionism is draped in the union flag, the party will have to be mindful of the fact that it does not enjoy uniform support in Northern Ireland, and that Irish nationalists are deeply unhappy about Brexit. The complex electoral arithmetic of Northern Ireland is as much the soup the DUP swims in as are its demonstrative, and occasionally bellicose, declarations of fealty to Britain.
Pragmatic issues will also come into play: no-one in Ireland can live with a hard border, and the party’s powerful rural wing has an interest in keeping the traffic flowing, whether it is tourists, relatives and friends, goods or livestock that is crossing the, at present, invisible frontier.