Brexit queen

Despite deliberately muddying the water with messages to the contrary, Arlene Foster and the DUP have always favoured a hard Brexit; with a hard border being the ultimate prize. Owen McQuade unpacks the party’s stance.

Despite much media coverage to the contrary, Arlene Foster and the DUP has always favoured a hard Brexit and a hard border. Although the majority of people in the North voted to remain within the European Union, 44 per cent voted ‘leave’. Most of these were unionist (66 per cent) and of these most DUP voters (75 per cent). Arlene Foster and her party campaigned and encouraged their supporters to vote leave, with the party even funding a high-profile advertising campaign in London for the leave camp.

The DUP has always recognised that although Brexit will surely hit its core support of farmers, it remains keen on it because, as one of its former ministerial advisors put it, “it will cut all links with the Irish Republic [sic]”. However, after an initial overt enthusiasm for Brexit, the party has been playing the role of reluctant Brexiteers, perhaps as the consequence of the strong reaction from many unionist business people against Brexit.

Foster has always been clear that she supports the UK leaving both the customs union and the single market. Even in August this year she was still extolling the benefits of Brexit: “We know there are huge opportunities in relation to Brexit and we also accept there are short-term challenges.” This is in contrast to stance taken by the UK Government for farm subsidies post Brexit. Northern Ireland gets around 10 per cent of UK farm subsidies which equates to 87 per cent of farm income for the North’s farmers. Post-Brexit, the UK’s Agriculture Minister is reportedly favouring using the Barnett Formula for determining how much subsidy the North’s farmers should get. Under the Barnett Formula the north gets 3 per cent of any funding (reflecting the fact that Northern Ireland has 3 per cent of the UK population). This would see northern farmers’ subsidies fall to one third of today’s levels.

The hard-line unionist leader also hit out at Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in August when he queried if the UK should leave the European Union at all. “He may be hopeful but that is disrespecting the will of the British people. Brexit is going to happen. We are leaving the European Union.”

Despite claiming to want a ‘soft border’ on the island of Ireland, the UK Government’s stance is pushing us towards a hard border. When the DUP signed its confidence and supply deal with the Conservative Party it agreed to support the UK Government’s Brexit stance unconditionally. Rather than insist on measures that would mitigate the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, the DUP chose to ask for hard cash up front.

To understand the DUP’s approach to Brexit you need to consider what the dominant unionist party has said about cross-border relationships on the island of Ireland, which has been contrary to how it has behaved.

Arlene Foster was Enterprise Minister for nearly seven years in the devolved administration with a brief to grow tourism, an area badly hit by the legacy of the Troubles. However, her only notable cross-border interaction was to pose for the occasional publicity photograph with her counter parts south of the border, while at the same time blocking any substantial cross-border tourism initiative.

For example, the Irish Government’s very successful tourism initiative the Wild Atlantic Way stops at the border, although the island’s Atlantic coast does not. Tourism officials were also frustrated with the DUP minister refusing to bring a tourism strategy to the Northern Ireland Executive, as she thought it too “green”. The strategy targeted more visitors from the Republic and suggested an emphasis on the Irish aspects of the Northern Ireland brand.

The frustration of tourism officials on both sides of the border over this period was palpable. As one official put it to me: “If Arlene Foster had to choose between cross-border tourism or no tourism, she would pick no tourism.” And so she did.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this ‘hard border’ approach to all-island co-operation was the constraining of IntertradeIreland, a body set up under the Good Friday Agreement to foster cross-border trade. The cross-border body is allowed to do little of real consequence and with several DUP party members now on its board, it is focusing on advising Irish companies around Brexit. It is a great irony that the body set up under the Good Friday Agreement to facilitate trade on the island is now facilitating Brexit.

Despite the rhetoric around the need for a ‘soft’ or ‘porous’ border, I suspect we will be soon be facing the real prospect of a hard border on the island of Ireland with the DUP wringing their hands and blaming the European Union and the Irish Government. As the UK’s negotiations with the European Commission start to sour perhaps the best hope for Ireland, north and south, will be a change of UK government and the potential for a softer Brexit.

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