Jo Swinson has not yet put out a statement congratulating Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, on her resolution and principle in standing against Boris Johnson’s terrible Brexit deal. But it must be only a matter of time.
For a long time, under Theresa May, the paradox was that the referendum vote to leave the EU was being frustrated by those who believed in it most: Steve Baker, Priti Patel and Bill Cash were the Brexiteers Against Brexit. Now, under her successor, the so-called Spartans were all ready to vote for the latest deal, but the DUP is still holding out. Its position is different from that of most Conservative Eurosceptics, in that, for them, the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the most important thing.
The DUP wants to leave the EU because its members are UK nationalists, but that is less important to them than preserving Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK. And, although their voters mostly voted Leave in the referendum, they represent constituencies that voted to Remain. They see themselves as representing the whole of Northern Ireland, where a majority voted to Remain, and where farmers and businesses are worried about a no-deal Brexit and a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
So it was puzzling that the DUP was at first prepared to go along with Johnson’s plan for Brexit, which seemed to mean more checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, and which the party had previously said was unacceptable in May’s deal. There was some cynicism about how Johnson was obviously prepared to offer more money to Northern Ireland to overcome the DUP’s objections, but this I think is misplaced.
This is where liberal opinion has a problem understanding the DUP. The party is associated with attitudes towards abortion and gay rights that are regarded as antique by progressives, and so Labour and Liberal Democrat Remainers are not going to rush to praise Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds for postponing Brexit, if that is what they end up doing.
Of course the DUP wants to drive a hard bargain on spending on public services in Northern Ireland, but what they are really concerned about is respect for the unionist community.
The problem for the DUP with May’s deal was that it gave Northern Ireland no say in the future of the arrangements for keeping an open border with the Republic, the backstop. Hence they were prepared to compromise when Johnson offered a role for the Northern Ireland assembly and executive in agreeing border rules in future. But designing mechanisms for consent in Northern Ireland is hard, because nationalists and unionists have to be treated equally. Such a mechanism was finally secured for governing Northern Ireland 10 years after the Good Friday Agreement, but it broke down two years ago.
Who knows if this time the DUP’s objections can be overcome in a few hours or days, as they were in December 2017 when Theresa May finally won the breakthrough to the second stage of the Brexit negotiations. Or if it will take another 10 years to solve.