What do the Brexit negotiations mean for Northern Ireland?

When reports emerged from Dublin yesterday that a deal had been struck along the lines the Irish Government had been advocating for weeks, it was clear to anyone who knows the DUP that there was no way they would sign up to it. Any perceived “win” for Dublin would not play well within Northern Irish unionism.

Ordinarily, this would not matter that much, but when the DUP’s 10 MPs hold the balance of power at Westminster, it matters a great deal.

It is perhaps a sad reflection on modern politics that people react with shock when politicians stick to their policies. However, that the DUP opposed a deal that treated Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK should not have been a surprise to any observer. They have stated this repeatedly since the referendum last June and as recently as 48 hours ago. Last weekend at the DUP’s annual conference dinner, party leader, Arlene Foster MLA, and deputy leader, Nigel Dodds MP, made the point loud and clear in front of the First Secretary of State, Damian Green, and the new Government Chief Whip, Julian Smith.

So, how did this happen? Did the DUP backtrack or mislead the Government? Having worked with the likes of Arlene Foster, Nigel Dodds and Westminster Chief Whip, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, for many years, one thing to be sure of is that they never leave you uncertain of their position, especially on matters of such importance. However, as highly experienced negotiators they are also well versed in the development, delivery and selling of “constructive ambiguity”. Context  and wording matters a great deal in Northern Ireland. Unionists would inevitably view a win for the Dublin Government, as a loss for the union.

Did the Government fail to consult the DUP? Nigel Dodds is on record as saying that the UK Government only showed the DUP the final draft text on Monday morning and that the Prime Minister was told the DUP could not accept it. He has been critical of the role of the Dublin Government and stated that if a deal is to be reached then the wording will be very important and that it will be critical that there is no divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Understandably, this episode has led to questions about the strength of the Confidence and Supply agreement between the two parties. Some have argued that the Conservatives are in a stronger position than others think as the DUP would never want to risk the united-Ireland- supporting-Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell getting their hands on the levers of power.

It is true that the DUP are strongly opposed to the Labour leadership given their previous pronouncements and support for Irish republicans and comments regarding the IRA. However, regardless of who occupies No. 10 it is a matter of law (both in the UK and Republic of Ireland) that a united Ireland can only come about through the principle of consent, meaning a majority of people in NI must vote in favour of it. This is a very long way off as things stand.

Therefore, any thought that the DUP would back any deal that meant NI would be a step-removed from the rest of the UK for fear of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister is flawed. The DUP exists to maintain Northern Ireland’s role within the UK and it will almost certainly always put its defence of the union ahead of any Confidence and Supply agreement with the Conservatives.

The wording of any deal will be critically important and it will only find favour with the DUP if it clear that Northern Ireland is leaving the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.