09 June 2017

The decision by Theresa May to seek to form a government with support from Ulster’s Democratic Unionists will have implications for the way she negotiates Brexit, Jill Rutter argues.

In substance, the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) position on Brexit is not much different to the Conservative one. It fought on a pro-Brexit manifesto. Point 29 in their 30-point plan for Brexit was to end jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. So far, so easy to agree a common approach for round one of the negotiations.

No more ‘no deal’ brinkmanship

But there are big and significant differences in tone too. Both want the best deal for Britain (or Northern Ireland). But Theresa May was very clear – no deal is better than a bad deal – and she was prepared to be “bloody difficult” if that was what it took to get Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission; Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator; and Martin Selmayr, Junker's Chief of Staff, to offer the UK acceptable terms.

The DUP, for all its hard-line reputation on this side of the Irish Sea, has none of the no deal language in its manifesto. Instead it stresses that “the circumstances of Northern Ireland are well understood and working together sensibly we have the opportunity to secure a good outcome that delivers for everyone”.

A focus on the border

That is because it realises a deal is needed to avoid a hard border emerging with the South (and with it, potential pressure for a solution which might entail more unity with the Republic), but at the same time, the party is against any special status for the North that divides it from the UK. So, it stresses not just the need to maintain the Common Travel Area but also the need to “fully reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland with a land border with the EU”.

The DUP wants a frictionless border, “assisting those working or travelling in the other jurisdiction”, a “comprehensive free trade and customs arrangement” and to establish Northern Ireland “as a hub for trade form Irish Republic into the broader UK market”. And the DUP seems to take a much less rigid view on migration than the Conservative manifesto, stressing the need for “effective” immigration policy which “meets the skills, labour and security needs of the UK” and that higher and further education should continue to attract “international expertise”.

It also stresses the need to stabilise the energy market – which is a single cross-border market in Ireland. The desirability of opting into valuable EU programmes (something the Prime Minister has also suggested in the past) and a willingness to countenance time-bound transitional arrangements. And, of course, there is a stress for proper devolved input into both the negotiations and future policy but also a “fair share of the dividends from leaving the EU”.

A new approach to negotiations

The DUP input into the negotiations will mean the UK Government has to pay even more attention to the Ireland question – there were suggestions at our negotiations event in April that the UK was leaving the EU, under pressure from the Irish government, to make the running on this.

But it also means the Government must give more consideration to devolved voices generally – and the Prime Minister will have no option but to open her negotiating approach more as she seeks to take her new supporters with her. That may have wider benefits if it forces the Prime Minister to expose options to scrutiny and discussion even if it is not her preferred style.

It also means there will be a voice that appears to be more conscious of the potential economic implications of a disorderly Brexit – and that no deal may be disruptive for the UK but would be a disaster for the Northern Ireland economy and the stability enjoyed in the last two decades.   

The Government may of course still not be able to muster a parliamentary majority for any Brexit deal it delivers – if it survives the negotiating process intact. It may want to explore a way of bringing more cross-party voices into the negotiation to make it less likely it produces a deal for which it can’t get a parliamentary majority. But the election result already means that the closed process of developing the UK line for the Brexit negotiations must open.

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