As the DUP position shifts and Threatens Theresa May's working majority, Jonathan Evershed assesses the scope and limits of Unionist resistance to the Brexit backstop.
Contra the terms of their confidence and supply arrangement with Theresa May’s government, DUP MPs have already signalled their intention to vote down the Prime Minister’s deal, which provides scope for post-Brexit differentiation between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in terms of customs and regulations (albeit in the context of a UK-wide customs arrangement). The party has maintained its insistence – despite enduring political guarantees and strong countervailing arguments to the contrary – that any such differentiation would serve to undermine the political and economic integrity of the Union. At this stage, it seems likely that Theresa May will not be able to count on her confidence and supply partners to secure her Brexit deal. However, if she is nonetheless able to find a Parliamentary majority for it (though this is clearly by no means certain), then it is less clear what, precisely, the DUP will be able to do about it.
The party does, of course, have previous form when it comes to fomenting street-level agitation to try and force political concession. The Ulster Workers Council Strike of 1974 – in which the party played a key (though contestable) role – was markedly successful in its aim of collapsing the Sunningdale experiment in devolved power-sharing.
This ‘success’ notwithstanding, however, the party’s record in preventing those political developments to which it is opposed is, at best, mixed. The 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement – which has been cited by observers and commentators as providing a close parallel for present events – elicited many months of Unionist protests, one of which provided perhaps Ian Paisley’s most enduring and defining soundbite: ‘never, never, never’. It is notable, however, that the scale of mobilisation around the slogan ‘Dublin is Just a Sunningdale Away’ was never quite matched by that which went under the banner of ‘Ulster Says No!’ Crucially, of course, the latter campaign ended, decisively, in failure. Similarly, the annual, violent three-way stand-off at Drumcree between police; Orangemen and their supporters; and Garvaghy Road residents which scarred the mid-to-late 1990s resulted not in a ‘victory’ for Unionism, but in intensified intra-communal conflict, concession, compromise and the creation of a new Parades Commission which remains in place to this day, despite ongoing (increasingly token) Unionist opposition.
In 1998, the DUP lost the argument decisively as a majority in Northern Ireland backed the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. And during the flags dispute of 2012-2013 – instigated at least in part, according to a Queen’s University Belfast report [PDF], by a DUP-backed leafletting operation – initially large-scale and at times violent street protests achieved nothing more than the arrest and imprisonment of large number of (predominantly young) protestors and eventually fizzled away. In July 2018, police were met with resistance as they moved in to East Belfast to remove a series of dangerous Eleventh of July bonfires. But (violent) protest here was as notable for its short duration and lack of popular support as for its ineffectiveness.
The observable trend over time has been one of entropy: a decline in the scale and efficacy of Unionist popular mobilisation and decreasing Unionist unity of purpose. Even if, as one Unionist commentator has suggested, Theresa May's proposed Brexit deal could bring ‘a grassroots unionist reaction that would dwarf the anger of the flag protests and Drumcree’ – which, at the risk of later being forced to eat my words, seems highly unlikely – there seems to be little reason to believe that this sort of resistance to the backstop will yield results. Westminster politics has long been all-but immune to the influence of Unionism’s particular brand of civil disobedience. And crucially, there is absolutely no reason to expect any reciprocal protest effort from mainland ‘Unionists’ (read English Nationalists) who would happily trade Northern Ireland for a ‘clean’ Brexit tomorrow.
As has been noted by any number of commentators, pundits and analysts, the DUP’s effort to block any deal on the basis of the backstop has the potential, in the long-term, to amount to an exercise in cutting off the party’s nose to spite its face. Foster et al. are liable to find only fair weather friends at Westminster, and it would be a mistake to count on either the ERG or mass popular support for their position. Indeed, many in the Northern Ireland business community – a core DUP constituency – explicitly back the backstop. And an increasing number of Unionists appear to be questioning whether the Union can survive precisely the cliff-edge, no-deal Brexit (and hard border) which the DUP seem to be precipitating.