The positive tone from Thursday’s meeting between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar was a welcome antidote to the weeks of megaphone diplomacy which preceded the Wirral mini-summit.
A “pathway to a possible deal” statement said everything and nothing, but at least offered hope.
The PM and Taoiseach chose a fine venue to try and seal a deal with profound implications. Having enjoyed my wedding reception there, I would have done likewise. But there remains the issue of whether the DUP will ever join the EU hand in matrimony.
Unionists are naturally keen to stress that any deal requires their consent – but there lies the problem. The Johnson-Varadkar outline was also a pathway to a possible squeal from the DUP as it revived Theresa May’s backstop. It would leave Northern Ireland following EU Single Market and Customs Union rules, even if formally outside the latter.
This looks like a DUP retreat in two very big instalments. There was the voluntary surrender on regulatory alignment to the EU Single Market last week. Now, an all-Ireland customs synthesis would yield potential barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That said, the prospect of large-scale customs checks on GB-NI goods traffic is low. They would surely be light touch and the commercial and constitutional implications minimal. But that’s not what the DUP has been saying.
Understandably, the DUP’s approach is to insist upon a unionist veto. So despondency among the party’s finest at Holland’s late goals in Rotterdam on Thursday evening must have been compounded when the Secretary of State, Julian Smith, appeared to rule out such veto rights on the BBC’s The View programme an hour later. By yesterday morning, Downing Street was claiming that Smith had not been briefed. That certainly registered high on the overworked incredulity-ometer. Downing Street: “Anyone fancy bothering to brief the Secretary of State about the most important issue confronting Northern Ireland in a generation before he goes on TV tonight?” “Nah, let’s keep him in the dark.”
Local consent to EU alignments is important in terms of legitimacy, yet consensus appears unattainable, for numerous reasons. First, the chances of the EU permitting a regional Assembly such veto rights, way beyond any member state parliament, are very slim.
Then we are confronted by the not insignificant fact that Sinn Fein has long left Parliament Buildings, mentally and, increasingly, physically and will not be rushing back any time soon.
Even if we use considerable imagination and believe that Stormont could reconvene to shape EU relationships, how would consensus be found? Whilst only a small number of legislative items are automatically subject to cross-community parallel consent rules, it is inconceivable that the old Petition of Concern device would not be used to trigger such requirements for EU-related business. The Assembly would have to be reconstituted on a different basis than the failed Mark 1 (1999-2006) and Mark II (2007-19) versions. Unionist and nationalist consent models are looking increasingly dated amid the growth of the non-aligned anyway.
Alternative forms of consent or veto are also unsatisfactory. The government could give Northern Ireland’s MPs the final say in EU attachments, safe in the knowledge that Sinn Fein won’t be turning up at Westminster.
But that then confines consent to the 36% of the population who voted DUP at the last general election in Remain-voting Northern Ireland. The big-ticket form of consent would be a NI-wide referendum on membership of the EU Single Market and Customs Union. Yet this might take on the appearance of a surrogate border poll, which will hardly soothe matters.
In the absence of any agreed Northern Ireland consent mechanism, the obvious, if brutal, government tactic is to proceed regardless of the DUP (and UUP) in perhaps the biggest bypassing of local politicians since the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.
This would spell trouble for the Prime Minister if he still needed the DUP for a post-election majority, but given the antipathy of Arlene Foster’s party towards Jeremy Corbyn, it is unlikely to unduly perturb Johnson.
So what are the prospects of the Johnson-Varadkar rapprochement now producing the long-awaited deal?
Well I can at least confirm to the Prime Minister that a union celebrated at a nice Wirral venue can hold – even when the other half of the partnership makes most of the rules.
Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of books on the DUP and UUP (Oxford University Press)