The Olympic-standard mental gymnastics on display last week from the DUP, as it attempted to square the circle of the creation of an Irish Sea border as a wonderful opportunity for the North, was truly jaw-dropping.
The end of the Brexit transition period on December 31 led to the inception of a new trade border between the North and the rest of the UK. The North will remain in the EU single market for goods and will enforce EU customs rules at its ports.
From the moment the British government agreed to leave the EU single market and the customs union, it was inevitable that a new harder border would be created somewhere. Theresa May, the then British prime minister, said that an Irish Sea border, separating the North from Britain, was something that she “would never agree to”. Indeed, in her view, it was something “no British prime minister would ever agree to”
Her successor, Boris Johnson, was equally adamant that there would be no internal borders in the United Kingdom, reiterating at the DUP conference that “no British government could or should sign up to such arrangement”. In his view an Irish Sea border “would leave Northern Ireland behind” and “damage the fabric of the union”.
Under these reassurances, the proposals for a Northern Ireland Protocol published in October 2019 included the establishment of a regulatory border in the Irish Sea with associated infrastructure, including customs posts at the ports.
Aafter its publication, Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, endorsed the plan as a “serious and sensible” way forward. Within weeks, she had u-turned, and denounced the proposals as divisive and unacceptable.
Boasting of its influence in Westminster and anointing Johnson as prime minister, the DUP had to watch on helplessly as that influence and the associated negotiating “blood red lines” were washed away.
Rather than admit that it didn’t think through or foresee the consequences of Brexit for the North, and made a monumental miscalculation, the DUP appears divided and utterly confused about how to deal with this series of calamitous events. It seems it has now decided that it is politically expedient to disassemble the overall Brexit project from the Northern Ireland protocol. Last week Ian Paisley jr, the DUP MP, referred to Brexit as “not just a good thing, but a great thing”.
He stressed that the party still fully supports Brexit, but is just unhappy with the version of Brexit that we have ended up with. In the DUP‘s world, it was not short-sighted to campaign for, cheerlead and prop up Brexit at every opportunity. Rather than admit that it made a mistake that has isolated the North from Britain, it shamelessly and arrogantly denies any culpability.
Despite this continuing support for Brexit, the DUP voted against the trade deal between the EU and Britain, arguing that the implementation of the associated protocol posed a threat to the union. Implausibly, it is now seeking to divest itself of any responsibility for the creation of these barriers, instead pointing the finger of blame at its political opponents, an inept British government, a spiteful EU, the Irish government and the naïve business community.
On the Andrew Marr Show on BBC last Sunday, Foster refused to acknowledge the existence of a border in the Irish Sea, stating that it was her job to “mitigate against that”, and instead referring to a “regulatory issue” in the Irish Sea.
When asked about the additional checks and new bureaucracy, she said that there had always been inspections at the border, and claimed this was nothing new. However, the suggestion that there is nothing to see here, as there have always been some animal inspections, is sophistry on a grand scale and is not reflected by the current reality.
One week into the new arrangements, a number of large household-name retailers have discontinued their delivery services into the North, and some gaps have already appeared on supermarket shelves
Following the denial of an Irish Sea border, the Marr interview took an even more bizarre twist when the First Minister expounded the benefits of Northern Ireland’s unique position as an integral part of the UK market, and also a region able to trade freely with the EU.
Foster referred to a “gateway of opportunity in Northern Ireland”, and said she looked forward to taking “all the opportunities” presented. In four years’ time, when consent must be sought from the Northern Ireland Assembly to continue these arrangements, Foster said she hoped the protocol would be ditched. As a marketing strategy, this approach has some fairly significant shortcomings and inconsistencies.
While these attempts to deny reality, contradictory positioning, mixed messaging and internal wrangling may be fascinating for political observers, they have serious consequences.
The Irish Sea border exists, and there is no longer unfettered trade between Britain and the North. The checkpoints at ports, customs declarations, veterinary checks, red tape, delays, added bureaucracy and extra costs are all tangible and real.
In the Belfast Newsletter, a unionist paper, Robert Hardy, one of the most optimistic Brexiteers in the customs community, described the Irish Sea border as “cumbersome and hugely complex”.
The disruption and uncertainty surrounding these new trading arrangements is causing serious concern for a beleaguered business community struggling to deal with the toll of the coronavirus. There is also increasing concern that British companies will initiate plans to withdraw entirely from the North, due to increasing costs and complexities.
Investment will be key to a lasting recovery in a region with endemic vulnerabilities that faces daunting challenges. Any business thinking of taking advantage of the “gateway of opportunity” and locating in the region would be perplexed by the DUP’s contradictory stance around the protocol.
Aiken, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, has described the North’s situation as the “worst of both worlds”, and one that should not be spun into a success story.
Britain is spending billions building the ugly scaffolding for this trade border, the Irish government is generously extending support in education and healthcare to all citizens of the North. The depiction of the Irish government coming to the rescue must stick in the craw of the Brexit-supporting DUP.
For unionists, it has been an extremely challenging start to this significant centenary year. Rather than continuing with confused mixed messaging, they must accept the new reality, and endeavour to make it work