In order to strike a Brexit deal over the Irish border, Theresa May needs to be flexible and creative – qualities that are anathema to the DUP, writes Brian Wilson.
Theresa May and I have only two things in common. We both voted to remain in the EU and we became Privy Councillors in the same audience with the Queen. This did not lead to any subsequent esprit de corps. She kept pleasantries to a minimum which probably suited both of us. Yet, over the past 18 months, it would have required a heart of stone not to have some sympathy with her. The referendum result dealt her an extremely difficult hand – though, of course, she would not be Prime Minister without it. Still, it is easier to criticise than to have certainty about what should have been done.
The fundamentalist vacuity of “solutions” advanced by her internal enemies confirm that point. Tory MPs seem to have taken the same view for the time being. The vile, violent language used in advance of this week’s 1922 Committee meeting had the effect of uniting them in her defence. A more fundamental problem is that there is no alternative around whom her foes can unite. Given this breathing space, she would do well to contemplate one unforgivable mistake which has duly turned into a huge hostage to fortune. That was her decision to get into bed with the Democratic Unionist Party following the inconclusive General Election result.
In order to avoid the worst possible response to a difficult problem, it is best to exclude it from the start. That approach would have forestalled the crazy idea of dependency throughout the Brexit process on the DUP for survival. As has become apparent to all but the most wilfully blind, the border within Ireland is the most genuinely difficult Brexit dilemma. For a Prime Minister to tie herself to the most unreasonable and obscurantist force within that debate was a folly. What do the DUP actually want? They say they oppose the return of a hard border. Equally, their “blood red line”, in Arlene Foster’s charmless phrase, is against even the hypothesis of any additional regulations which take the Irish Sea as their delineator. Thus on a central issue which requires flexibility and diplomatic creativity, Mrs May attached herself to a grim force for which the words flexibility and creativity are anathema. At some point, if there is to be a Brexit settlement, she will have to free herself of that encumbrance. There are other reasons why Mrs May should not have touched the DUP with a barge-pole. As anyone who follows the arcane politics of Northern Ireland knows, there is a constant stream of dubious dealings involving representatives of the DUP. One observer described them as “the Fianna Fail of the North” – and it was not intended as a compliment.
The most prominent scandal is one to which Ms Foster is directly linked – involving vast sums of money intended to support the growth of biomass energy which developed into a trough from which DUP cronies supped disproportionately. The inquiry currently proceeding in Belfast continues to turn up hair-raising evidence of how the racket evolved. It has already led to the suspension of Stormont and could still bring Mrs Foster down. A curious ally indeed for the straitlaced Mrs May.
There is also a Saudi connection which should, in current circumstances, make her more curious about her bedfellows – and it is directly Brexit related. I refer to the mysterious £425,000 donation which was channelled into the closing stages of the Leave campaign via the DUP, taking advantage of Northern Ireland’s lax disclosure laws. It came through an organisation called the Constitutional Research Council, run by a Tory activist named Richard Cook who has close business links to members of the Saudi hierarchy. The ultimate source of this largesse has never been revealed and the DUP has declined to assist with enquiries. Maybe it is time for Mrs May to ask that question – as she should have done long before now. If she cannot get a full and satisfactory answer from Mrs Foster, what better time to tell her that this is beyond the pale of orthodox politics and the toxic marriage of convenience is over?