Ireland: DUP gets its fingers burned

A Sinn Fein party election worker dressed up as a crocodile stands behind a banner referring to Brexit outside a polling station in Belfast

On 14 November 2018 the European Commission published the draft British-EU Withdrawal Agreement. A chorus of derision greeted it at Westminster, with shrieks of betrayal from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Its backbench pulpiteers took to their feet to preach the Book of Genesis: poor unfortunate Esau – we were helpfully reminded – was once tricked into selling his birthright for a mere bowl of pottage. And then, as a matter of course, they recited Kipling’s Ulster:

Before an Empire’s eyes

The traitor claims his price.

What need of further lies?

We are the sacrifice.

It was all rather rehearsed. Their party had, after all, been on a war footing for a month and a half already, impatient to confront the inevitable. From early October the DUP had done what the DUP does best: indignation. It had huffed; it had puffed: in this ‘battle for the union’, any regulatory checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea were unacceptable. This ‘red line’ – it advised the Prime Minister – was ‘blood red’. On 10 October its MPs declined to vote with the government on a Labour Party amendment to the Agriculture Bill: a warning shot.

If the government thought it could call the DUP’s bluff, then it was about to ‘get burnt’. Then, having threatened to blow the house down and vote against the government in everything but confidence votes, it managed to hold its breath for five weeks, long enough to pass the Westminster budget – a budget that happened to release the rest of the £1 billion-plus package agreed in the Tory-DUP post-election deal. It was not until 19 November that the DUP’s Westminster group began violating the confidence and supply aspect of that deal, abstaining on several amendments to the government’s Finance Bill and voting with Labour on another.

Empty vessels make most sound

This is not a show of strength; these are acts of desperation from a party that has outlived its usefulness to the Prime Minister. The British government was never going to secure the deal the DUP wanted because the DUP never wanted a deal. Whilst for Theresa May, no deal was once ‘better than a bad deal’, for the DUP, no deal was the only outcome it would ever have accepted; its position on the Brexit negotiations was impossible from the beginning.* And so, the DUP is dumped. Yet what its ten MPs might lack in influence, they make up for in lung capacity, and as May limps on without them, they howl from the roadside like wounded dogs. This unholy racket was only interrupted when it roused an exasperated business class in the Six Counties. The regional leadership of the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors, the Federation of Small Businesses – having latterly ‘found their voice’ – told the North’s ‘party of business’ to wind its neck in, shut up, and accept what was on offer. They publicly backed Theresa May and her draft agreement. The trade unions – loyal as ever – promptly followed suit.

In bourgeois politics, generally speaking, parties heel to their master’s voice. Certainly, most know not to bite the hand that feeds them. But then the DUP isn’t most parties. Whilst its chief whip Jeffrey Donaldson entered a very public spat with the head of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, putative party leader Arlene Foster busied herself lecturing the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce on the merits of re-reading the draft agreement – with more care this time, so that they might understand it better. Now it is the DUP that risks ‘getting burnt’.

The impossible dream

When, in the Spring of 2016, the referendum campaigning began in earnest, the DUP Britishers gladly united with their old Eurosceptic muckers across the Irish Sea. Theresa Villiers – then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and ardent Brexit-monger – joined the DUP’s local quackery. Together they flogged a land of milk and honey and no red tape to the North’s farmers; British subsidies would replace EU ones and, while the region’s exporters cornered the British market, shiploads of Craigavon chicken drumsticks would cross to the four corners of the earth. Hardly believing their side would actually win, it mattered little to the DUP that its traditional rural heartlands were deeply conflicted in their relationship to the EU Single Market and Common Agricultural Policy. Nor that many of its big business backers were resolutely pro-Remain; where such sentiments existed within Unionism, they were muted. The DUP could throw caution and contingency to the wind and thump the Vote-Leave-lambeg (marching drum) to its heart’s content.

In that respect, little has changed. Like the ideologues of Britain’s Eurosceptic fringe, the DUP revels in the illusion that – as global capitalism descends further into crisis – British imperialism can somehow defend its interests and prosper as an independent world power. And so, with ill-fitted pith helmets, impervious to the pangs of reality, the DUP Brexiteers march on – eyes to the front – come what may.

Patrick Casey


 

* For a summary of the DUP’s position on Brexit see: ‘Ireland: Devil’s deal’ in FRFI 259.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 267, December 2018/January 2019

 

Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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