Ulster says no. That was Monday’s story.
The day began with promise. Before first light the Taoiseach arrived gladiatorially attired in singlet and shorts for a special Cabinet meeting in Government Buildings. But as one of the shortest days of the year darkened, he was surprised and disappointed.
A lesson learnt should be that you have nothing until you have it in the bag. A lesson in relation to the DUP is that you can only help them concur if you appear discomforted by whatever is agreed. By being too pleased too soon and by that pleasure being compounded in a leak to RTÉ, a stampede out from under what was previously agreed began. Except that’s coincidence. The fundamentals are different.
One fundamental is that, uniquely, neither the British nor Irish governments are in charge of their own house. Each is beholden to its parliament, and dependent on it. That was always a constitutional fiction, of course. Now it is political reality. Only one Monday before, Leo Varadkar’s drowning man’s grip on his Tánaiste was loosened by that fundamental political reality.
The following Monday, Theresa May’s course on an issue as important for Britain as any since it entered the EEC was changed. By next Monday and in advance of the summit scheduled for December 14 and 15, she may have reconciled herself to one unpalatable reality — that there is no going back for her. Or she will permanently politically retreat from her previously agreed position to shore up crumbling political foundations in Westminster.
The consequence of that will be a hard Brexit, which is “Euro-speak” for chaos. But if she does return to the table in Brussels later this week, she can only go forward by paying a very high political price at home.
The day before yesterday, which ended in such disarray, was the eve of the anniversary of David Lloyd George’s threat of immediate and terrible war on Ireland if it didn’t accept the terms of the Treaty.
Treaty negotiations in Brussels are more decorous. Nothing more terrible than another lunch is threatened when the one so carefully cooked ends without agreement. But the dynamic is the same. Terrible war is now threatened. But on whom? Ireland or Britain? May has a choice, not as to whether she wishes to fight on two fronts but on which front she wishes to capitulate. The consequence is terrible war on the other. The fear in Dublin is that ultimately states having only interests and not friends will bring pressure to bear on it, to compromise. It’s apparently unlikely for now, but paranoia would be healthy. Irish diplomats would be wise to sleep with the equivalent of the shotgun beside the bed for the next 10 days.
The DUP is caught in a mass of contradictions. It’s the unionist party of devolution, whose appetite for power in Northern Ireland is underscored by historic distrust of London. Much more than the diminished official unionists, they have the mentality of a frontier people.
They look out at one enemy across the border and they are surrounded by swathes of the same within it. Behind them in London is a fickle, decadent imperium. The differences are underscored by the diminishment of Protestantism as a cultural bond in Britain. Now the NHS is the nearest equivalent. It wasn’t an accident that it starred in the opening tableau of the London Olympics. The fundamentals of the bond between the throne and Co Tyrone are not what they were. Instead, they are simply recited on public feast days as ritual. The frontier is an increasingly isolated place. Brexit deeply excites the DUP because it speaks fundamentally to what it wants, which is for things to be as they were. It doubles down on that because of its aversion to the EU as to a Tower of Babel. Being continental, it is a cesspit. Remember it was French troops who were repelled from the walls of Derry. Robert Lundy, the compromiser, is an anathema so appalling, he is still burnt in effigy. Now, again, and for the very first time since 1689 Ulster is at the centre of a great European conflict. The compromiser can only be another Lundy. Who would be that? It was nearly Mrs May last Monday. The Boys of Derry put paid to it for now.
But if Brexit appeals ideologically to what is fundamental in the DUP, it flatly contradicts its hard-nosed political raison d’etre. Northern Ireland, which it demands leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of Britain, is based on exceptionalism. It began by the refusal to abide by Home Rule and then the subsequent establishment of a separate Stormont government after 1922. The DUP subsequently rejected the integrationist unionism of James Molyneaux and Enoch Powell. For Ian Paisley Sr, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 was proof, if needed, of the stupidity of trusting London with the union. It broke Molyneaux reputationally.
Remember Margaret Thatcher was, in Powell’s word, guilty of “treachery”. And May is no Thatcher. In embracing Brexit, with all its cultural satisfactions, the DUP has placed itself and the union in hock to London, to an unprecedented extent. It has effectively put in play, over the longer term, what the Good Friday agreement took off the table. That’s only understandable if you see the European Court of Justice as a continuum of the Spanish Inquisition, which in a sense it does.
HAT is just beneath the froth of the last 48 hours, however, is the fact that “continued regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland and the EU is an eventual outcome only if it proves impossible to secure a wider
EU-UK trade agreement.
The full text needs to be read and understood as a whole. Alignment is intended to be baseline to allow wider agreement to be discussed in earnest. It is not a bottom line in its own right, and only need become so in the event of ultimate failure at the end point of the talks, in their totality. It’s a safety net for us, but not the end game for them. At least it needn’t be.
Whether May will, like John Major, demand her government back her or sack her remains to be seen. If she moves forward on the basis of what was nearly agreed before she sat down to lunch on Monday, she is essentially doing that. I can only offer her the advice of Con O’Neill. He was a cousin of Captain Terence O’Neill and the son of a unionist MP at Stormont and Westminster. As the UK’s lead negotiator to enter the EEC in the 1970s, he advised that the only possible British approach to existing Community rules was “swallow the lot, and swallow it now”.
In embracing Brexit, the DUP has placed itself and the union in hock to London, to an unprecedented extent