Guest post by Dr Anthony Costello, lecturer in EU Politics and Comparative Government at the Department of Government, University College Cork.
Following the recent General Election in the United Kingdom, the prospect of a soft Brexit now appears to be more achievable than previously anticipated; albeit under the most unlikely and controversial circumstances.
Resulting in a hung parliament, the strength and influence of the Conservative Party has been significantly weakened. Quite ironic, considering Theresa May held the 2017 General Election intent on achieving a Conservative majority which would fully cement her leadership and confirm her mandate to negotiate Brexit on behalf of the British peoples.
Having won most seats in parliament, yet significantly short of the majority needed to govern as a single-party government, the Conservatives in an unprecedented move sought the support of the socially conservative cousins––the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland. This move sent shockwaves across Europe with the less than positive responses from national governments and citizens alike.
Leveraged by the DUP, the Conservatives now have an established mandate to form a minority government via a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement. An agreement which came about at the cost of a controversial £1bn funding arrangement for Northern Ireland. Albeit a most unlikely development, the DUP’s new-found influence in UK governance could be the key to a soft Brexit––one which sustains UK-EU relations, as opposed to weakening them further. Additionally, the DUP’s new-found proximity to the Brexit negotiations may meet Irish national preferences as the negotiations commence. After all, unlike the British Conservative Party, the DUP as a leading party in Northern Ireland, is accountable to the preferences of the Northern Irish electorate and is responsive to political and economic conditions within the region––conditions which are inherently intertwined with those of the Irish Republic.
Although the DUP expresses unionist, Eurosceptic, pro-British and anti-nationalist values, the party itself is inherently constraint by domestic conditions. In providing support for the Conservatives and gaining political influence and voice, the DUP as ‘Executive hopefuls’ in Northern Ireland must first and foremost represent and channel Northern Irish preferences. In doing so, it may act as a constraint on the hard-line interests and expectations of the Conservative British government. Until now, the Conservatives have instigated a rather Thatcherite-style approach toward negotiating Brexit, offering a rather blasé response toward the political and economic consequences for the UK, its regions and the EU.
The DUP now have a platform to prove their worth. Thus, it would be wise to thread carefully and make good use of its new-found position. Any slip-ups could drastically damage the party and its future role in Northern Ireland. Therefore, the party must present itself as a guardian of the interests of all of Northern Ireland, in what will be arguably the most uncertain political process in EU history. The DUP must carefully consider many important domestic/regional constraints when forming and mediating preferences during the Brexit negotiation process. The party must not forget that that 55.8% of the Northern Irish electorate voted to remain in the EU––a result that crosses sectarian lines.
From an Executive perspective, the DUP should mediate the preferences of its nationalist counterparts. The republican Sinn Féin Party which may come to govern with the DUP in the coming weeks will no doubt have indirect influence by proxy of a power-sharing arrangement in the Northern Irish Executive. Any side-lining of republican preferences (which will be based on closer relations with the EU and Ireland) would be politically detrimental to the power-sharing process and would threaten an already weakening devolved political system in Northern Ireland. This could fundamentally compromise the conditions of the Good Friday Agreement and affect the sustainability of the Northern Irish Executive. In turn, this would damage the DUP’s popular position in the Northern Irish politics and lead to grave political consequences.
Economically speaking, Northern Ireland is relatively economically weaker than its English and Scottish counterparts and relies heavily on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), ‘cross-border’ trade with the Irish Republic, EU structural funds (particularly the CAP) and free trade based access to the single market. A bad Brexit deal will likely weaken Northern Ireland’s economic position because of trade tariff on costs of production, goods and services, as well as the loss of essential EU funding. £1bn clearly won’t cut it. Loss of EU funding will likely damage the Agricultural industry on which the region heavily relies upon. The construction of a border between North and South (alongside potential trade tariffs) could potentially lead to inflationary pressures, slow down trading, affect ‘border county’ employment and profit making, as well as affect many people who travel to and from the North daily for work, leisure and tourism; factors which significantly influence the generation of revenue in the North and South. A bad Brexit deal could see a loss of FDI fundamentally deterred by negative economic developments in a post-Brexit Britain. Northern Ireland would be most sensitive to such a loss considering its relatively weaker economic capabilities and its reliance on the British market which is not expected to be immune to negative consequences after Brexit.
In addition to the economic and political consequences, if the DUP failed to channel a plurality of Northern Irish preferences effectively as part of the ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the Conservative Party, this could exacerbate pro-United Ireland demands on both sides of the communal divide, leading to further inter and intra-communal divides in the region. This could increase the likelihood for political instability at all levels, as well as the real possibility of a United Ireland in the future which could have significant consequences for peace process in Northern Ireland.
A soft Brexit deal should be in the interest of all political parties in Northern Ireland, regardless of sectarian/ethnic divides. Many domestic regional constraints will significantly influence regional preference formation, as well as how the DUP will shape their relationship with the Conservative Party and channel Northern Irish preferences in the Brexit negotiations. Although, the Conservative-DUP agreement appears to be worrisome for many observer’s due to the controversial ideological natures of the parties in partnership, it is important to note that parties in power are shaped and influenced by domestic conditions/constraints. Thus, pragmatism, as opposed to ideology should (ideally) come to determine their stances on Brexit. With respect to this knowledge and based on Northern Ireland’s unique conditions, the DUP’s new-found influence could be a path to a softer Brexit. If so, Southern Irish national preferences (which too seek a soft Brexit) may perversely benefit from the DUP’s political efforts.