Have cake, eat cake, still have cake

11 Aug 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 15 Aug 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

The letter from the First (and deputy First) Minister to new PM Theresa May is staggering – NI wants to be part of the EU in all but name, even if “Brexit means Brexit”

Speculation was growing long before the referendum that Boris Johnson did not want the UK to leave the European Union and, instead, took such a stance for political advantage.

The logic was that Remain, and thus David Cameron, would win - but by such a small margin that his position as Prime Minister would be untenable, while those who stood with the PM would also be in no position to take over.

Boris, then very popular and also leader of the Leave campaign, would have been in prime position to land his dream job.

Instead Leave won the day, Boris’ victory press conference was funereal, and colleague and former friend Michael Gove was able to demolish the Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP’s grand ambitions.

There can be huge political advantage in being on the losing side – especially on issues where public opinion is finely balanced. Winning means having to live with the consequences of your (apparent) convictions; losing allows you to shift the blame for future problems onto a decision you opposed, while presenting sunny-side-up speculation of how things would have been if only, if only.

The EU has been a political piñata for decades and the expected narrow victory for Remain would have given Boris, at his most popular as an antagonist, an enormous punching bag to sugarcoat issues with his premiership.

Instead Boris won, so he lost, while Remain campaigner Theresa May was on the losing side, before winning.

The new Prime Minister will be able to pursue Brexit knowing that if it goes well she will be in a strong position and, if it goes badly, she can blame other people. Suitable human shields are already in place: Liam Fox (Leave campaigner) is Minister for Trade, David Davis (Leave campaigner) is Minister for Brexit and, of course, Boris (Leave campaigner) is Foreign Secretary. Beautiful work, Prime Minister.

Local parallels

The DUP has historically been a party of protest, at their best when being negative, and despite having been NI’s largest party for almost a decade a central pillar of their recent (successful) election campaign was preventing Martin McGuinness from becoming First Minister.

Nonetheless, the DUP and Sinn Fein are in coalition government again and Mr McGuinness has precisely the same powers as First Minister Arlene Foster, which is why both of their names appear at the bottom of a letter from the Executive Office to our new Prime Minister, sent yesterday.

Some of our requests include:

  • No change in the land border with the Republic of Ireland
  • Continuation of free trade and free movement of people
  • Mitigation for the loss of huge EU funding
  • Massive support for our farming sector – which benefits both from exporting “a large proportion” of output to EU (and non-EU) countries, and also is from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), with Northern Ireland receiving 10% of the UK’s total CAP payments, despite having only 2.8% of the UK population

The First Minister has signed the letter, so it has her support, but altogether it amounts to a plea to remain in the European Union, in all but name.

There is much uncertainty about Brexit but all of the potential issues flagged up in this letter were known beforehand. Perhaps the cold focus of reality has made them think again, and more clearly, or perhaps it was something else.

It begs the question of whether the DUP really gave any sensible thought to what is the biggest political decision in both NI and the UK for decades. What were they thinking?

One possible answer has to be that the DUP were following the Boris template: if you back the loser, you’re on to a winner yourself, which can be a masterstoke - but disastrous when it backfires.

And either way, it is disingenuous, callous and downright mendacious.

Whatever the DUP’s motivations for first backing leave, and for now what amounts to a significant U-turn (however much they deny it – and the First Minister did just that on Good Morning Ulster earlier today), it does look like Brexit means Brexit – and the DUP are going to have to live with the political consequences.

Local reaction

Among rival parties, it is feeding time at Belfast Zoo.

The UUP’s Steve Aiken OBE delighted in questioning whether this represents a volte face for their main rivals, and also demanded to see some “real plans” for dealing with Brexit.

“It is about time the Executive came forward with real plans for dealing with Brexit.  Instead of providing clarity and solutions, the Executive Office is quickly becoming the Department for Stating the Obvious.”

The SDLP’s Clare Hanna declared it a “breathtaking reverse ferret”:

"While we agree with the points made in the letter it is frustrating that OFMDFM did not acknowledge and campaign on these issues prior to the referendum. The letter reads like a pro-remain information leaflet. Indeed, the SDLP campaigned on every one of these issues - particularly on the border, avoiding labour shortages and the loss of EU funding - and the DUP dismissed us at every turn… Ms Foster has clearly realised the error of her ways in backing Brexit and now the horse has bolted, is asking the Conservative Government to close the gate.”

The Alliance Party’s Stephen Farry said the letter did not go remotely far enough, outlining several other areas of concern, including the future of our universities – and issues that was also raised just yesterday by Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd. Jim Allister also weighed in to say that the letter was essentially Pro-EU.

Scope has heard numerous times, from numerous sources, that there are plenty of senior people within the DUP who wanted to remain in the EU. It is hard to see how any individuals would benefit from openly going against the party line at this time, however, while it would certainly be harmful to the DUP (and bear in mind this party is extremely adept at avoiding damage from within).

Economy Minister Simon Hamilton was extremely coy about just this matter in this interview with the Belfast Telegraph – in which it was also stated that his predecessor, and party colleague, Jonathan Bell ultimately favoured Remain.

The effects of Brexit remain shrouded, although portents so far have been largely negative.

If it goes well, or even OK, the DUP will be able to shrug all this off. If it goes badly, there could be serious consequences.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.