Has Brexit made Northern Ireland’s DUP more British?

Has Brexit made Northern Ireland’s DUP more British?

The Democratic Unionist Party was alone amongst Britain’s front-rank provincial parties in supporting Brexit. As a result, we might be about to see what happens when a party steps outside the fundamental dynamics of devolved politics.

Ever since Tony Blair created the various parliaments and assemblies in the late 1990s, the constitutional debate has broadly followed a wearingly familiar pattern: taking ownership of controversial national decisions is difficult and electorally disadvantageous, whilst railing against London is easy and often a vote-winner.

It isn’t hard to see why “The blame lies in London; the solution is to increase my power and prestige” – or put as briefly as possible, “more powers!” – is an appealing formulation to devolved politicians, including many unionists. But it does align the short-term incentives of pretty much everybody involved in devolved politics against British-level decision making, creating a ratchet effect which has left our country in a rather parlous condition.

In many ways June’s Brexit vote has been no different. Nicola Sturgeon is already manoeuvring to create a pan-Scottish resentment front for Remain, even if Labour and the Liberal Democrats have since pulled out of it, whilst the fact that Wales voted Leave only distracted Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru from their prepared scripts for about a week.

But Northern Ireland is different. Like Scotland, the province voted Remain. But it lacks Scotland’s democratic deficit on the Brexit question.

Almost two in five Scots voted Leave, yet not a single Holyrood party, and only a handful of MSPs, endorsed that view. The 350,000 Northern Irish Leavers did have a party to speak for them. In fact, they had the DUP, Northern Ireland’s biggest party, and Arlene Foster, the First Minister herself, as their champions.

So when time was called on June’s scrum, the dust cleared to find the DUP holding the Brexit ball. They can’t disown it, and they can’t pretend it’s all London’s fault. They own leaving the EU now, and if they want come out as winners they have no option but to make Brexit work.

This is a big break from the normal state of affairs in devolved politics – and as I’ve written on ConservativeHome, it already seems to be having some very interesting effects.

Despite its Union Flag bunting, the DUP has always been a rather parochial political force: “England’s Difficulty is Ulster’s Opportunity” wouldn’t be a terrible way of summing up their approach to national – i.e. Westminster – politics.

Now this seems to have changed. All signs point to the party trying to build a substantial, sustained relationship with Theresa May and the Conservatives, to the point where commentators now point out that the Government can bank the DUP’s eight votes on most issues. On potentially challenging topics like grammar schools, the party’s MPs have gone out of their way to be supportive.

The challenges that Brexit poses to Northern Ireland have been aired at length, but if the shock prompts fresh thinking on the part of the province’s politicians it could have upsides too.

For example, they might recognise that Ulster is over-dependent on grants and subsidies and put serious effort into developing an economic ‘plan B’. That’s just the sort of reform which would help Foster’s DUP find more common ground with their new Conservative allies.

Is a formal pact or coalition between the two likely? Probably not, although I explored the issue here and it isn’t impossible. Northern Irish unionism has traditionally been a Tory force.

But people trying to draw wider lessons from the EU referendum campaign and its aftermath – especially those worried out the break-up of Britain – should pay attention to where the DUP goes from here, because it currently looks as if taking part in a UK-wide campaign, and thus owning a UK-wide result, has injected a new British dimension into the thinking of a devolved party.

And if you think a bit more British thinking might be important to the survival of the British state, that’s worth knowing, especially at a time when some of our national parties are dumping their commitment to British politics in a misguided scramble for short-term gain.