“Too long suffering can make a stone of the heart”. That’s what W B Yeats believed. But too long dominating others can make an ass of the dominant one. Or in the case of the DUP, asses.
Take Arlene Foster. She is, I would judge, a clever woman. You don’t jump ship from one party to another, and then go on to lead that second party, without having a degree of cleverness. Granted, the muffled growls of Nigel Dodds can be heard in the background, but Arlene is still there. Love her or shudder at her name, Arlene is no fool.
And yet. There’s Arlene standing outside the Westminster parliament, her crown brooch in place, saying that Theresa May will have to go to Europe and pluck out, slice up and burn at midnight the backstop, or the DUP won’t support her withdrawal bill. And in case you have been living in a bunker for the past year, the back-stop is the safety net which guarantees that, come what may in Brexit negotiations, the present open border will be maintained between the north and the south of Ireland.
The craziness of Arlene’s position on the backstop is that she knows the clear majority of people here really favour Theresa’s bill. The Ulster Farmers’ Union, business people – they’ve all made clear they think Theresa’s deal may be imperfect but it’ll do. In fact, there are those who say that it’d give the north the best of both worlds – frictionless trade with the south and the benefits of being able to trade freely with the rest of the UK. So what’s not to like?
Well, in Arleneworld, this is the thin edge of the wedge. How dare these damn foreigners arrange that we, the unionist people of Ulster, should be in any way made different from our brethren in the rest of the UK! OK, there may be differentiation already, like with checks on animals, but, well, but, um, that’s, what’s the word… different. Nobody will be allowed to set us on this slippery slope of being differentiated from the rest of the UK. Even if the difference is a favorable one.
It’s useless to point out that the north-eastern corner of Ireland has been given, in a hugely magnanimous gesture, the guarantee that there’ll be no constitutional change here until the majority wish it. The DUP still see the backstop as A Trap.
Normally it’s people who are hard done by who see traps in everything. But the DUP are now in a more powerful position than they have ever been, at least at Westminster. They hold the balance of power, and so can spoil Theresa May’s plans, except she performs serious surgery on the UK-EU agreement, the backstop. Get over there, Theresa, slice open up the chest of the EU and pull out that damned backstop.
Except Theresa is going to do no such thing, because she can’t. The EU, unlike it would seem the UK, are concerned about the Good Friday Agreement. Because if Theresa’s bill is voted down, that’s what we’ll get. It took eighteen months to construct the present deal, and there isn’t eighteen months left. There are just three.
So why are the DUP asking for the impossible? Well, maybe because, although they say they want an open border, they really want a hard one. Remember what some off-the-wall unionists used to talk about during the Troubles: let’s build a physical barrier between us and the south of Ireland, so people will see that we up here are really really different from them’uns. Maybe Arlene figures that having a well-guarded, harder-than-hard border would be that physical manifestation of the timeless unionist rallying-cry: Not An Inch!
That sort of talk makes the backwoods DUPers go all shivery with pleasure. Bringing them back to that golden age before power-sharing and suchlike nonsense. Maybe that’s what Arlene is after: a heightening of the shiver count.
Except she’s making one lethal mistake. If the union with Britain is to survive here, it needs the support of some Catholics/Nationalists. Otherwise the numbers won’t add up and next you know there’ll be a majority for a united Ireland. Love them or get sick at the thought of them, Arlene, you’re going to have to make nice with the fenians, because if you don’t, your precious union is dead.
Or maybe, as Joe Brolly has suggested, that bird has already brain-dead.