Unionists don’t really believe their own invective on the backstop

Unionists don’t really believe their own invective on the backstop
DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds arrive in Downing St, London for a meeting with prime minister Boris Johnson. Picture: PA

I should be writing about today’s budget this morning. But there’s nothing to say, really. If it’s remembered at all, this is going to be remembered as the Brexit Budget.

Assuming Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe avoids any egregious banana skins in his budget speech today (always a risk, as we know from experience), we’ll probably all end up acknowledging that he did the least he had to do and the most he could.

Except, maybe, in one respect. Everything I read over the weekend suggests that the Government will impose quite small increases in carbon taxation. That would be a serious mistake.

Now is the time to make a real start, and make a real statement, on what our environment needs from us. We need to frontload the commitment to increase carbon taxation and begin investing in alternatives, and it would be a backward step to do the bare minimum now.

But apart from that, the biggest priority by far over the next couple of weeks has to be not the Brexit Budget but Brexit itself. We’re getting closer and closer to a deadline that is looking increasingly apocalyptic. And to make matters worse, we’re starting to get lectures from unionists again.

Is there anything in the world more irritating than listening to a lecture from Jeffrey Donaldson? Every now and again, usually at a time of crisis, he comes on television to tell us how we’ve messed up. It’s always sanctimonious, delivered from a position of smug superiority. And it’s usually based on an utterly superficial analysis.

Like that time recently where he delivered a speech to the Institute of European Affairs in Dublin, when he said the Irish Government had “subcontracted” Northern Ireland policy to the European Commission. (In quoting him, I’m relying on RTÉ’s account of his speech.)

We knew from an early stage, said he, that the border was a sensitive issue in Brexit, but we chose to use it as a bargaining chip that could be used by Brussels. He claimed that we had sought a solution to Brexit — the backstop — which we knew didn’t have the support of unionists.

In the process we had abandoned the politics of consensus, and tried instead to claim that we were the guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, while we were at loggerheads with Westminster and unionism in Northern Ireland.

The arrant and arrogant nonsense behind all this never seems to occur to him. We have abandoned the policy of consensus? Coming from a party that supports a prime minister who has hammered nail after nail into any possibility of a consensus around Brexit, it’s almost laughable.

No consensus on this island voted for Brexit. There is a very clear and widespread consensus that Brexit will do enormous damage to this island, and especially to the part of the island Mr Donaldson represents.

Just as we didn’t seek Brexit, we didn’t seek the backstop. We accepted the backstop designed and introduced by Boris Johnson’s predecessor as the only available measure that could minimise the damage that will be caused to this island by Brexit.

Ever since then, the Irish Government, as part of a European-wide consensus, has said that it is open to any alternative that would avoid a hard border on this island, and protect the Good Friday Agreement. That’s simple enough even for Geoffrey Donaldson not to misinterpret.

But we’re going to get loads more of it over the next couple of weeks. Nigel Dodds weighed in over the last couple of days, with pretty personal attacks on Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney for their temerity in seeking to defend the interests of the entire island.

I don’t mind Dodds so much. Just as Donaldson’s default position is smug and superior, Dodds’s is grumpy, and I tend to prefer that. But he’s just as wrong. In the Belfast Telegraph, and all over the news, he’s quoted as saying he had a simple message forLeo — and that Leo should reflect on it.

He is destined to go down in history as the Taoiseach who restored a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because his friends in Brussels will insist on it.

And Dodds’ leader, the equally grumpy Arlene Foster, added: “The Irish Government’s majoritarian desire to ride roughshod over unionism was one of the reasons why the withdrawal agreement was rejected.”

You’d really wonder, wouldn’t you, what planet they’re living on if they believe this stuff. There has never been a moment, since the principle of consent was first enunciated (and that principle is now written into our Constitution), when any Irish Government wanted to ride roughshod over unionism.

Somebody ought to print out Article 3 of the Irish Constitution and post them up a few laminated copies, so they could stick it on their walls and have a look at it whenever they’re tempted to believe we want to ride roughshod over their hopes and dreams.

But of course they don’t really believe their own invective. They say it because it goes down well with the tribe. They’re up in arms now because Boris has produced a new plan, and they like it. Why? It’s very complicated, but it boils down into a couple of simple propositions.

The backstop would be replaced by a sort of Northern Ireland partial backstop, and the DUP could pull the plug on that, because the Northern Ireland backstop (which would only cover some issues anyway) would have to have the consent of the Assembly every four years, which gives the DUP a built-in veto.

It’s not hard to understand why Arlene sees it as a “practical solution”, is it? But here’s the thing. If a bit of a backstop applied to Northern Ireland suddenly becomes acceptable to her majesty’s government as a matter of principle, there can be no principled objection to the entire backstop applied to Northern Ireland.

And if her majesty’s government is suddenly keen to write in a role for the Assembly in deciding how long it should remain in place, then there can be no possible argument against legislating for that role in a way that would require detailed cross-community support, and ensure that legitimate economic interests are considered.

The idea that one party would have a veto is both absurd and profoundly anti-democratic. Talk about majoritarian roughshod riding!

And if her majesty’s government wants to build a European consensus around such a proposition, there can be no principled objection to building in a role for the European Union, and especially for the representatives of the rest of the island (as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement already).

When Leo and Simon talk about Boris’s new idea as a step in the right direction, I think what they really mean is that it needs to turned upside down and then have its elements rebuilt.

There may be the beginnings of the bones of a solution here, but it can’t be based on the bits and pieces of a Northern Ireland backstop that are acceptable only to the DUP, and it certainly can’t be based on a hardline DUP veto. No amount of sanctimonious humbug is going to change that.

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