So it seems that the perennial wrecker of Irish and British politics, the Democratic Unionist Party, is being asked to support the Draft Withdrawal Agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom on the understanding that it and its allies in the Conservative Party’s anti-EU faction, the European Research Group, can collapse the whole deal at a future date. In an attempt to win over what was once perceived as a party too extreme for mainstream politicians in Britain, Theresa May’s minority administration in London is said to be offering all sorts of political, legal and financial blandishments to the DUP’s leadership, with pledges of backdoor-access to the Cabinet in Downing Street, a behind-the-scenes presence at future EU-UK talks and decision-making, and several billion pounds of further state aid for Britain’s legacy colony in the north-east Ireland (that is, on top of the hundreds of millions of pounds already paid out in a partially failed attempt to secure the loyalty of the hardline DUP MPs in the House of Commons).
Will the Democratic Unionists be persuaded by the British premier and her colleagues that they can have their cake and eat it too? That they can gain further political and legislative influence in the UK, further cash for their communities, while achieving Brexit and hardening the soft border with the rest of the island of Ireland? Which remains, despite all media claims to the contrary, the primary goal of many in the party.
The Policy Exchange, a right-wing think tank in London, seems to be giving some weight to Theresa May’s argument that Britain can pull a legal and diplomatic sleight of hand in its Brexit treaty with Europe. Under the alluring title for the europhobic factions in Westminster, “The Irish Backstop: Nothing has changed? It has actually“, the authors David Trimble and Paul Bew, a pro-union politician and a pro-union academic respectively, suggest that the UK can simply walk away from those aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement it disagrees with through the application of some interpretative chicanery.
While the Withdrawal Agreement itself has not changed, the potential practical functioning and probable duration of any future backstop has been significantly changed in the course of recent negotiations.
Having ignored the issue for too long, the UK Government has finally begun to invest in a serious consideration of the technology that might render the backstop meaningless in practical terms.
Crucially, the Government has now admitted the point that there are circumstances in which the backstop may undercut the 1998 Good Friday Agreement rather than protect it, as it is intended to do. This could constitute the ‘socially destabilising effect’ by which certain provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement might be ‘disapplied’.
While a temporary backstop for a short period is acceptable to all parties (including the DUP), it is clear that the prospect of an enduring structure, with expanding and dynamic functions, is untenable in the long run and could lead to socially disturbing effects and potential instability. It would be unpalatable for both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
As a result of this shift in position, the UK Government is now correct in asserting the right, in extremis, to appeal to international law under the Vienna Convention.
It is now perfectly clear that if the DUP-ERG axis in the House of Commons is cajoled into supporting Theresa May’s deal it will be on the understanding that the UK intends to break that deal at a later point, utilising the slightest of pretences, to prevent the application of the peace-saving Backstop Protocol in the north of Ireland. Furthermore, it is equally clear that the Democratic Unionists will only lend their votes to the Tory leadership in the House of Commons in return for an input into London’s planned post-Brexit relations with Brussels and Dublin. Which can only be interpreted in the most pessimistic of ways.
The DUP has travelled a long way since the days when it was the de facto political wing for British militancy in the Six Counties. All the way into the British corridors of power in Downing Street and Westminster.
Update 19.00: The political crisis in the UK has taken a new and unexpected turn into a full-blown constitutional crisis. Unbelievable.