Ireland Eye

Written By: John Coulter
Published: March 9, 2018 Last modified: March 9, 2018
The first potential, tentative steps in forming a future Labour/Democratic Unionist coalition in the House of Commons were taken this week in Brussels.
Following a no-punches-pulled, face-to-face meeting between the leadership of the DUP and Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator on Brexit, it became clear the DUP was in no mood to compromise, let alone accept the EU’s withdrawal terms for the UK.
It wasn’t so much a case of the DUP throwing cold water on the EU blueprint; more a case of the Unionist dumping a large iceberg to crush the proposals.
The outcome of the meeting was in stark contrast to the mood music of an earlier meeting between Barnier and a delegation from Sinn Fein. The republican movement has largely welcomed the EU proposals with open arms, principally because Sinn Fein sees the potential for the EU granting special status to Northern Ireland in future talks.
However, what was most notable came during the post-Barnier talks Press conference by the DUP. Party leader, Mrs Arlene Foster, an Assembly member who represents the border constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone listed how both her party and Labour were opposed to the current EU Brexit proposals.
Although the DUP is locked into a Commons agreement with the Conservatives to keep Theresa May’s minority Government in power, there was very little, if any, singing the praises of Tory opposition to the EU draft.
It is clear the DUP has recognised that the present rift in the Conservatives could widen to the extent that very public civil war breaks out between the Europhiles and Brexiteers in the obviously split party.
This being the case, there is the real possibility that before 2018 draws to a close, May could lose a vote of confidence over Brexit – and the UK finds itself in the teeth of a snap Westminster poll.
With Jeremy Corbyn taking advantage of Tory infighting by proposing a separate Customs Union for the UK, there is the real possibility that Labour could end up as the largest party in the next Commons – but not enough seats to form a clear Labour Government, or even a Government with a majority of only a handful of MPs.
While many people tend to focus on the DUP’s overtly Christian fundamentalist roots, especially during the era of its late founder, the late Rev Ian Paisley.
Ironically, the DUP and Labour have one trait in common – both are working class movements. While the DUP is clearly viewed to be Right wing on the Union and constitutional matters, it is clearly to the Left on social and bread and butter issues which affect the ordinary people.
In spite of Corbyn’s past support for Sinn Fein, the DUP could see Corbyn and Labour as being a useful cog in the political wheel to get the devolved parliament at Stormont restored.
The 2017 Assembly election saw the Unionist political family lose its majority at Stormont for the first time in its history. In the battle to become First Minister, the DUP is now only one seat ahead of Sinn Fein, but of the 90 MLAs, non-Unionist MLAs are in the majority.
This leaves the DUP facing some very difficult votes on thorny social issues for the party, such as same-sex marriage, more liberal abortion legislation and a stand alone Irish Language Act – all of which the DUP opposes.
The DUP now knows it could face the humiliation that while it is the largest party in the Assembly, it could lose votes on these three crucial issues, and in turn could see many pro-Union voters turning their backs in the DUP.
This would not necessarily see a revival of the DUP’s rival in the election-battered Ulster Unionists, or a significant swing to the Hard Right Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party fronted by ex-DUP MEP Jim Allister.
What the DUP fears is that Protestant voters – especially in the core bases of the Christian Churches, loyalist marching band scene, and the Protestants-only Loyal Orders, such as the Orange Order, Royal Black Institution and Apprentice Boys – could turn their backs on the ballot box, meaning that Unionist voter apathy could hand a united Ireland to Sinn Fein on a political plate.
There is no doubt that a Labour Government would introduce same-sex marriage legislation, liberal abortion legislation and an Irish Language Act much quicker than the current Conservative Government.
With the collapse of the Stormont peace talks last month, Direct Rule from Westminster is now inevitable. Although the DUP, traditionally and historically, has always been a devolutionist party, it would suit the DUP for the House of Commons to pass laws relating to these three thorns than more bitter debates in Stormont.
Once these laws have been passed via Westminster, the DUP could quickly agree a deal with Sinn Fein on restoring the power-sharing Executive without having the embarrassment of betraying the influential fundamentalist wing of the party. Given Corbyn’s good working relationship with Sinn Fein, he would be in prime position as a Labour Prime Minister to act as a political conduit to bring the DUP and Sinn Fein together for a Stormont deal.
Sinn Fein is still adamant it will adhere strictly to its founding principle of not taking its Commons seats – a policy it has doggedly observed since its formation in 1905. This being the case, Corbyn – like the current Tories – may have to rely on DUP MPs to be certain of the keys to 10 Downing Street if he cannot win back sufficient seats from the Scottish nationalists, given that Scotland was once a guaranteed Labour stronghold.
Just because the SNP lost more Commons seats than expected in last year’s General Election, does not mean the nationalist cause is on the wane north of the English border. Its seems that the SNP is using Brexit to revive its fortunes even though this may not result in a second independence referendum.
But the Scottish nationalist, like Sinn Fein, could hold the line politically by campaigning for a special status for Scotland, such as a specific Scottish/EU Customs Union, post Brexit.
Irish history is full of ironies – and a DUP/Labour coalition will suit both parties. It gets Corbyn into 10 Downing Street, and gets the DUP off the hook with its fundamentalist voter base over the three thorns.

About John Coulter

John Coulter is a journalist for the Daily Star