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'They've lost every battle': The rise and fall of the DUP's Brexit strategy

“Everything they’ve touched has turned to dust. They’ve lost every battle.”

This week has not been good for Arlene Foster.
This week has not been good for Arlene Foster.
Image: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images

THE DUP TODAY is expected to firmly reject Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.

The party, which has proved a pivotal player in the ongoing Brexit drama, announced early on Thursday that the details on customs arrangements and the role of Stormont in determining those arrangements in Johnson’s deal were unacceptable. 

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph on Friday, Foster set out the reasons for her opposition. “We were not seeking a perfect deal. It doesn’t exist. We were seeking a deal which delivered Brexit without erecting barriers to trade,” she wrote.

One thing Foster didn’t focus on was the huge compromise the party had already made in pursuit of a Brexit deal. After spending two years rejecting a border in the Irish sea, the party agreed to just that last week – a major shift from what was previously a ‘blood red line’

DUP MP Sammy Wilson was more explicit yesterday morning, telling the BBC that his party had already made concessions to Johnson’s Brexit cause. 

So while the DUP is promising to inflict defeat on yet another Tory prime minister today, experts warn that the events of the last few days represent a major embarrassment for the party. 

The University of Liverpool’s Jonathan Tonge, who specialises in Northern Irish politics, told TheJournal.ie that the party has been “completely stitched up by Boris Johnson”.  It’s the latest, Tonge said, in a long line of defeats for the DUP.

In July, the party had to stand by and watch as the House of Commons basically voted to introduce gay marriage and abortion to Northern Ireland – two things it staunchly (though perhaps less staunchly than in the past) opposes. 

“Everything they’ve touched has turned to dust,” Tonge said. “They’ve lost every battle.”

To him, the decision to come out strongly against Johnson is partly a face-saving measure. After being sidelined so publicly by the prime minister, who has said he remains confident of passing the deal, Tonge says not to oppose the agreement in parliament would mean a “loss of credibility”. 

tory-leadership-race Boris Johnson had long been trying to court DUP support. Source: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images

The first concession, he said, was a “huge tactical mistake” that was uncharacteristic for a party often profiled as intransigent and stubborn negotiators. 

But while the vocal opposition is something of a necessary tactical correction, it leaves the party lining up today among some unlikely bedfellows such as Labour and the Lib Dems. 

“The fact that they’re basically now pro-remain and pro-Good Friday Agreement, you couldn’t make it up,” Tonge says.         

General election

One detail included in the Belfast Telegraph piece could be read as a warning to voters ahead of the next UK general election, which seems imminent. 

“It is only as a result of the strong mandate that we received at the last election that we are able to continue to have a critical role in the House of Commons,” Foster wrote. 

The calculus of an imminent election is important. Newton Emerson, a commentator on Northern Ireland, said that the party is in an “atrocious position” on Brexit. 

“The DUP will be campaigning against their own record,” he said. 

In a typical political system, this would mean voters will set out to punish the party. But with the Ulster Unionist Party a peripheral force in Northern Irish politics, the options open to voters are more limited. 

Emerson points to the Alliance surge of the last two elections and suggests that in the long-term, it could start to erode the DUP’s support in key seats. 

“While [an increase in Alliance support] did not involve the DUP vote going down, there is a transformation of our politics at the moment,” he says.

So what next?

One former DUP official agreed that the prospect of polling day was important, but also shouldn’t be overstated. “The response would likely be the same if the election was now or in three years,” they said. 

More important is the fact that the DUP backed itself into a corner – acceding to Johnson’s compromise but then falling victim to his own shift in position on the role of Stormont.

Worse still, the former official predicts that it’s unlikely “that there could be a simple majority in Stormont to leave the customs arrangements in the future”. 

This leaves the long-term future difficult for the DUP. While it will not spell the end of a party that has dominated British politics for nearly three years, the sting of the last week will not be easily forgotten. 

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