Flat-footed DUP leader needs to step forward

Posted By: July 06, 2016

Brian Feeney. Irish News (Belfast). Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Confusion reigns in the DUP. The referendum result, which, like everyone else,  they didn’t expect, has knocked them off balance.

They have no plans, no policy and no idea how to react. Arlene Foster will never acknowledge she made a serious miscalculation supporting the Leave vote. It may have been politically acceptable to her vast tribe of backwoodsmen to lead them further backwards, but now she’s left flat-footed in front of the microphones intoning the mantra that the UK has voted Leave and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

Wrong: to begin with there’s an enormous amount that can be done to mitigate the impact on trade, investment and health north and south.

At present the DUP seems, not surprisingly given its prejudices, to be delighted at the prospect of dragging people in The North backwards into a xenophobic, racist, homophobic imagined ‘wee country’ sometime 60 years ago. For them Brexit is culture war. They have nothing to say to farmers and the people who trade €1 billion a week with the Republic except it’ll be alright on the night. Yeah.

In contrast, the Irish government quite correctly considered the referendum so important that officials have been working on contingency plans for months. Their counterparts in Stormont started last week. It’s to be hoped that departments with Sinn Féin ministers will have instructed their officials to look at the wider all-Ireland implications of the vote. So far Foster doesn’t seem to have taken any of that into consideration nor is it likely DUP ministers will.

For all those reasons the DUP will do its best to stymie any all-Ireland forum examining the consequences for trade, investment and health not to mention environment, tourism and agriculture.

The party’s newly minted knight Donaldson squawked in dismay at such a suggestion. The Republic can’t speak for The North in the Brexit negotiations he protested. Foster parroted this line. That misses the point. The DUP hates that Republic’s officials are in constant contact with British officials and will indeed be negotiating with the UK about the Common Travel Area and any sort of customs Border. That’s above Arlene’s pay grade. Those are reserved matters.

This blinkered mentality produces a number of important questions. First, how do you convince the shortsighted within the DUP that without involving themselves in some sort of all-Ireland forum Irish and British officials will devise procedures including, for all they know, a customs Border at British ports and airports, without any reference to Stormont? Secondly, the Republic will play a role in ratifying whatever arrangements the British come to with the EU in 2019 or later. The British will be keen to have the Irish on-side for that. Would it not be a good idea for the DUP to know what they’re up to?

Equally the processes already in train between the two governments are of intense concern to Northern Nationalists for the same results apply. Irish government officials are not noted for taking the concerns of Northerners, Nationalist or Unionist, on board. It is imperative therefore that some forum is established. On Monday the Irish government could make no progress on it using the obvious machinery of the North-South Ministerial Council because the DUP would not agree. Enda Kenny can’t allow a DUP veto on this matter. If the DUP stupidly resists any forum for discussion being set up under the auspices of the already existing machinery it’s incumbent on him to set it up outside the machinery. The Irish government must assert its right to be involved in all-Ireland affairs.

Sinn Féin will have to agree with the DUP about relations with Westminster in the new dispensation and how much less money there is available but it’s plain the DUP won’t agree with Sinn Féin about the wider implications of the disastrous circumstances facing the poorest part of the UK.

There are pitfalls for Sinn Féin here. It’s not just a matter of finance. There are legal implications for the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act, particularly in the area of obligations under EU law.
Any deal it cuts with the DUP must be transparent and put to consultation but let’s establish a forum.