The DUP’s whole raison d’être is to preserve the union. It has throughout its history set its face against every compromise with nationalists that might lead to further entanglement with the Republic of Ireland (their older supporters will still spit out references to “the Free State”, as if it were the Federation in Blake’s Seven). Though you wouldn’t know it to listen to them now, they fiercely opposed the Good Friday Agreement.
In 2016, they decided to take a holiday from their staunch unionism and backed Brexit. Their enthusiasm cannot be understated. They were used as a conduit for spending money in mainland Britain for the Leave cause, something that was picked up on at the time. The DUP has never made clear the source of its Brexit funding.
While unionists as a tribe were undoubtedly unenthusiastic about the EU, this choice was not automatic. The UUP as a party chose to back Remain.
With the benefit of hindsight, that looks to have been a much smarter position for a unionist party. Brexit has left Northern Ireland high and dry. By the time that the Northern Irish Assembly was asked for legislative consent for the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in early 2020, not a single MLA spoke in favour of it. Later in the year, every Northern Irish MP who sits in Westminster voted against the trade deal, and the Northern Irish Assembly voted to reject Brexit and to withhold consent for the legislation. Westminster, of course, carried on regardless.
The deal as struck puts Northern Ireland in a unique position. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has remained a part of the EU’s single market for goods. So, since 31 December goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain need to be certified and are subject to new checks and controls at ports.
Boris Johnson had told Northern Irish businessmen in 2019 that there would be “no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind.” Technically Boris Johnson had been referring to access from Northern Ireland to Britain rather than the other way around, and his words have held literally true. But from the viewpoint of the average Northern Irishman in the street, that comprehensively misses the point.
The trade agreement has not yet been fully implemented: there is a three month transitional period until 31 March while suppliers adjust. Yet already supply lines into Northern Ireland are looking stretched. Reports have abounded of supermarkets with empty shelves. Shipping organic food into Northern Ireland is especially complex. Numerous retailers have withdrawn for now from shipping to Northern Ireland as they take stock.
Edwin Poots, a Northern Irish government minister, has claimed that food supplies to schools and hospitals are threatened after 31 March. Clearly not feeling that was dramatic enough, he went on to claim that the gravy train was running out (something far more alarming for a Northern Irish politician).
Some of these are teething problems, of course. And the good folk of Belfast are not starving in the streets. They have, however, been culturally impoverished by a reduction of choice in some of the most basic aspects of life. If they are going to restore those choices, the chances are in the medium term they will need to do so through the Republic of Ireland.
In four years’ time the Northern Ireland Assembly will be able to vote on whether it wants Northern Ireland to remain within the current regulatory system or to return to Great Britain’s regime (but then having to sort out the question of the Northern Irish border). There isn’t a majority for such a change now. It must be unlikely that there will be a sufficient appetite in 2024 to suffer yet more disruption, whatever the DUP might forlornly hope. Increasingly, Northern Ireland will start looking to Dublin.
The UK government’s response by and large has been to obfuscate. It has claimed that things are working well, that it is all to do with Covid and that it is working closely with suppliers to streamline systems (it has even claimed all of these things simultaneously, despite the internal contradictions). What it has not yet done, however, is offer any succour to a part of the United Kingdom which now feels distinctly detached.
As if that were not enough, the impact of Brexit on the debate about Scottish independence has knock-on effects in Northern Ireland. Northern Irish unionism looks firmly towards Scotland rather than England. An independent Scotland would transform the debate in Northern Ireland.
Even the staunchest unionists are feeling the change in the wind. This week three DUP MPs have warned that their party needs to prepare for a referendum on Irish reunification.
Such a referendum is not going to happen right away. Unlike in Scotland, however, the UK government does not have a free hand. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland may hold a referendum on Irish reunification at any time, but he must do so “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”
Brandon Lewis has been studiously vague about how he approaches these duties. One further consideration, however, is that such referendums must be at least seven years apart by law (SNP supporters might note that the seven year marker is reached this year following the last Scottish independence referendum).
So conceivably a Secretary of State might call a reunification referendum at a time when he or she thought that Northern Ireland might vote to stay in the UK in order to buy years of breathing space – perhaps shortly before a Scottish independence referendum that might well go the “wrong” way.
Paddy Power offer 5/1 against Irish reunification before 2030. The long time period before that bet would pay out is a disincentive to taking that bet. But Brexit has sharply increased the chances of a united Ireland in the medium term, and the practical desirability to aligning more closely to the Republic of Ireland is likely to become apparent to many unideological voters fairly quickly. This will only be accelerated if Scotland looks like going independent.
And it’s all due to decisions made by a party of arch-unionists. That’s something the DUP will no doubt reflect upon at their leisure.