I was gripped today by the coverage of the brexit Irish border issue. It started off this morning looking like no progress would be made, but then rumours started spreading that the UK was going to concede on some issues to keep Northern Ireland kind of maybe nearly almost in the single market (unofficially, but pretty much) to solve the border issue. This scared the DUP, who want no divergence with the rest of the UK and definitely no steps towards Irish reunification, into calling a hasty press conference saying they wouldn’t support it, and shortly afterwards the whole thing was called off.
There is so much detail in here.
1. Putting the border in the sea is a good idea to move negotiations forward but essentially it’s just re-categorised it from an international UK-EU issue to an internal UK issue. Without a credible way of solving the internal problem, it’s still going to block any final deal. And obviously, the logical implication of the internal problem is to keep the rest of the UK in the single market too.
2. The DUP are a only a problem because the minority Conservative government relies on their support for an effective majority, and the DUP are historically completely irrelevant to non-NI politics. This seems like a very circumstantial problem, not that this observation helps with solving it, because to shed the circumstances requires calling and winning a new election. It’s just worth taking a moment to appreciate how bonkers the situation is that the DUP, who have never wielded any power outside NI, would happen to become important during the one parliament they can veto something like this.
3. The DUP’s aims are contradictory – they want an ultra hard brexit (despite NI actually voting remain) and to fully remain part of the UK, but they also want no border with the Republic of Ireland. Irish politics is very hard to understand, I think because you need to be familiar with decades of religious and political violence for it to make any sense.
4. It seems odd that Theresa May apparently didn’t discuss this with the DUP first. She knew it would be contentious to them and that she relies on their support. Maybe she was calling their bluff and hoping they’d back her over risking the collapse of the government (and ergo their own influence)?
5. It’s possible the rumours were started by the EU side to try to drive up hype. Not sure what the aim of this would be though – to pressure TM into accepting, to stoke the DUP tensions at home, or to all-out undermine her? The EU are pretty good at this sort of thing – see how they dealt with Yanis Varafoukis, but I’m not convinced they’re doing it here.
6. However, if Theresa May didn’t intend for this to be the solution, what was her plan? It would be like turning up without doing your homework and hoping the teacher won’t notice. It’s fair to say the UK government has no expectation of a hard border in Ireland because there is no preparation going on – we’d expect them to be buying up land along the border, if so.
7. So in conclusion she was probably calling the DUP’s bluff and it backfired on her. This is the folly of trying to negotiate brexit with the weakest government in living memory, which only became so weak because people were opposed to brexit.
The only real choice Theresa May has right now is to try to fudge it to placate the DUP and hope that by the time the details matter that she has some more options, but that’s exactly what she was trying to do. Anything else will see a DUP revolt, a party revolt or EU talks break down, all of which likely see Mr Corbyn in number 10 in the not so distant future, and quite possibly no brexit after all.