What could make the 10 Democratic Unionist MPs blink politically and support Theresa May’s Brexit deal? Simple – pussy-foot with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who is well known for his pro-Sinn Fein support.
Three times Mrs May has tried to get her withdrawal deal across the line, and three times her ‘confidence and supply’ partners at Westminster, the DUP, have thrown it back in her face.
At long last, Mrs May has gained an understanding of how the DUP political beast thinks and works. Perhaps the ghost of its founder, the late Rev Ian Paisley, has whispered in her ear the secrets of what makes the DUP tick – the only Union which matters to Democratic Unionists is keeping the six counties of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom.
If Mrs May cannot persuade the DUP to back her deal, maybe she can scare them into backing it. And if she can get the DUP on board, many in the ERG will follow its lead.
To make Project Fright a reality, pro-May Tories need to understand that the DUP as a political movement is built on the concept that its supporters must have something to oppose.
It began in the late 1960s as a protest movement by Rev Paisley against the liberal policies of the then ruling Ulster Unionist Party. Its original name was the Protestant Unionist Party.
It became the DUP in 1971 after Rev Paisley had won seats in the original Stormont Parliament and the North Antrim Westminster seat. His son, Ian Junior, still holds the Commons seat.
The DUP’s success as a political machine was based on fusing together two previously muted voices in Northern Ireland – fundamentalist Christians and working class Protestants. This political shotgun marriage eventually bore fruit in the early years of the new millennium when the DUP overtook the established Ulster Unionist Party as the main voice for Unionism.
The DUP’s vote management and electoral strategy was based on a simple tactic – don’t let the enemy get in, whoever that may be! The next big test of DUP electoral strength will be the local council elections in Northern Ireland on 2nd May.
Perhaps ‘the Doc’, as Paisley senior was affectionately known, has reminded Mrs May of the strategy adopted by the DUP during the 1985 council elections. Paisley senior was pictured with the sledge hammer with the banner ‘Smash Sinn Fein’.
Sinn Fein, rather than the rival UUP, still remains the big political boogie man for the DUP. If Mrs May opens talks with Corbyn, DUP tacticians might be speculating as to what price Mrs May will pay to secure Mr Corbyn’s support. To the DUP, Corbyn is viewed as a Marxist Sinn Fein supporter.
No matter what spin Sinn Fein puts on its links – past or present – to the Provisional IRA, to the body politic of the DUP, Sinn Fein and the IRA are all part of the same republican movement.
The DUP will be wondering – could any May/Corbyn deal result in a weakening of the Union itself and place Northern Ireland firmly on the road to Sinn Fein’s vision of a 32-county democratic socialist republic?
Presently, the DUP can hold its ground against Mrs May because it knows the Irish republic is not sufficiently economically strong to afford a united Ireland. Even Lagan Valley DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson – a former Ulster Unionist – recently suggested at a Fine Gael conference in the republic that Southern Ireland should reconsider rejoining the British Commonwealth.
Strategically, while Mrs May tries to get a resolution to her withdrawal deal either within her own party or in Brussels, the DUP will always oppose an Irish back-stop. The DUP can sell opposition to the back-stop among its legions of voters in Northern Ireland that the back-stop is really the back door to a united Ireland.
So if the Achilles Heel of the DUP is to do something which endangers the Union and Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, then the only way to scare the DUP into supporting any deal is to do business with the leader of the Opposition whose avowed aim, if he gets into Downing Street, is to take Northern Ireland out of the UK.
Is it any wonder the DUP’s Westminster leader, the North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds, hinted that the DUP would rather remain in the EU than do anything which endangers that Union.
To fundamentally scare the DUP into supporting her, Mrs May has got to sell her talks with Corbyn as creating a political situation which the DUP regards as the 1985 Hillsborough Agreement Mark Two.
That agreement signed by another former British PM Margaret Thatcher, gave the Irish republic its first major say in the running of Northern Ireland since partition. Central to a May/Corbyn deal would be an increased role in the running of Northern Ireland by Dublin.
This would be especially politically unpalatable for the DUP given that the power-sharing Stormont Executive collapsed more than two years ago in January 2017, leaving Northern Ireland without a devolved government.
Without a back-stop, the DUP knows the republic will be both economically and geographically isolated from the rest of the EU. If Mrs May abandons a back-stop, Southern Ireland could be on the verge of a second Irish Famine – only this time, not the potato disaster which killed tens of thousands in the 19th century, but an economic famine more akin to the collapse of the once-booming Celtic Tiger economy around a decade ago.
The DUP has to be careful it does not overplay its hand in the coming weeks. It is not so much a case that Mrs May is isolating the DUP; more a case that she is playing the DUP at its own game – pushing the party into a political corner from which it must emerge.
The Unionist voters of Northern Ireland have punished the Ulster Unionists electorally for moving too far from its traditional centre right power base. Those voters would similarly punish the DUP if as a result of the party’s intransigence a May/Corbyn deal actually saw the Labour leader become PM or sparked a greater role for Dublin in Ulster. The DUP cannot afford to take that risk. It is a movement which puts party survival first.
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Listen to religious commentator Dr John Coulter’s slot, Call Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, as part of the ‘At The Table’ show.