Is the DUP a very powerful party or a neutered party? On the face of it you’d say the former, but the latter is probably nearer the mark.
If Nigel or Arlene or Nigel were asked, they would of course say they are a very powerful party. They’re the biggest party in the North and they have now stopped not one but two British prime ministers in their tracks. Just when Theresa May thought the traffic lights between the UK and the EU were green, the DUP switched them to red and Theresa May, after thrashing around with endless votes in the House of Commons, had to pack it in.
And now? Last night Boris and the EU thought they had things sewn up nicely. The DUP had been in and out of 10 Downing Street so often, it must have felt as though Boris might have arranged sleeping quarters for them and moved to formally adopt them as his children. But this morning, the DUP says it doesn’t like the customs arrangement on offer and it’s got problems with VAT and then there’s concerns over consent. Doris Day in Don’t Eat The Daisies was easily beddable compared to the DUP’s will-they, won’t they.
VAT can be sorted. Remember when Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were planning to arrange the north’s corporation tax low to match that in the south? VAT can be done. too The position of the North in terms of the customs union is also relatively straight-forward. De jure, as they say, it will remain part of the UK withdrawal from the customs union, de facto it will follow the EU’s customs rules, which is pretty much what Theresa May had originally agreed.
No, the big one is consent, which in a way is baffling. It’s understandable that the DUP would like to have a lock on the customs arrangements, which will be in the Irish Sea (Shhh, Virginia – you’ll frighten the horses!). It’s not that they’re still saying this would be a terrible infringement on the unity of the UK – they’ve already said they’d go with that when Boris proposed the North would stay in the single market. Even though it’s a massive U-turn, the DUP can swallow the Irish Sea, as it were. What they’re worried about is consent.
The DUP wants to have a say regarding how long this customs union thing will continue, so there’s talk of a northern vote on it every four years. That vote could be by the Assembly, with a majority of unionists and nationalists being required – that is, the petition of concern would be used – both big parties must agree to any change. Or it could be simply a majority vote of MLAs. Or it could be a referendum regarding continuation, with all of us having a say.
If I was a DUPer, I’d be worried too. If the petition of concern system was used, I’d realize that a majority of republicans would refuse to agree to any change, so sin é – the north would remain de jure outside the European customs union but de facto inside it. Indefinitely.
If there was to be a majority vote of MLAs, the majority of MLAs are no longer unionists, so it’s a good bet there’d be no change – the north would remain de facto in the EU customs union indefinitely.
And if the vote every four years took the form of a referendum, again the DUP would find itself in a minority. Not just that: the vote would at least in part be a proxy vote for a united Ireland – it’d allow republicans and nationalists to test the waters every four years, not every seven. And as soon as nationalism/republicanism saw themselves as favoured by the majority, there’d be an immediate call for a border poll, and it would be granted.
And I haven’t even mentioned how mad-as-hell the normally-unionist business and farming communities would be, if they were reminded every four years that the DUP wanted to wreck the North’s economy.
There’s a sad, sad truth at the heart of all this. Just like the British Empire, the DUP and unionism are in decline. And when your very existence is increasingly threatened, you get more and more erratic, more and more hysterical. Being neutered: it’s not much fun. Try to remember that, the next time you see Sammy’s face move from pink to purple.