PSAI 2017: ‘The DUP-Conservative deal as a path to a Soft Brexit: A Two-Level Game Analysis’

Guest post by Anthony Costello, lecturer in EU Politics and Comparative Government at University College Cork. This post is based on his paper to PSAI Annual Conference 2017, titled ‘The DUP-Conservative deal as a path to a Soft Brexit: A Two-Level Game Analysis’, due to be presented Saturday 14 October.

On 26 June 2017, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the UK’s Conservative Party forged a most unprecedented inter-party arrangement. Arguably one of the most controversial political developments in recent months, the deal cemented the relationship between the DUP and the Conservatives; an arrangement meant to leverage the Conservative Party’s minority government. In propping up the Conservative party, the DUP effectively endorse the Conservatives in fulfilling their election promises regarding Brexit. An examination of the deal suggests this. The deal has generated much concern, with many believing that it guarantees a Hard Brexit; one which will see the UK not only leave the single market, but also leave the customs union. These fears are not unfounded. However, if they came to represent a reality, this would place the island of Ireland into a most difficult position, politically, economically and socially.

Albeit reasonable to suggest that the DUP (on account of their political nature) actively endorse a Hard Brexit––one suggests that there are several influential regional opportunity structures in Northern Ireland (NI) which could divert the DUP from taking an ideological, rather than pragmatic stance in their relationship with the Conservative party. From an ideological point of view, a Hard Brexit arguably fits in-line with the DUP’s long term political and socio-cultural goals, but from a pragmatic standpoint, it is politically unfeasible and arguably discouraged.

A political party’s main objective is to achieve power and hold onto that power; ensured by re-election. In liberal-democracy, this requires a keen sense of responsiveness and regard for the complex web of liberal domestic forces at play––factors with greatly influence the electoral success of political parties. For this reason, one looks toward the theory of Two-level Games for a potential explanation. Initially developed by Robert Putnam as an International Relations theory of negotiation and bargaining, it attempts to explain how domestic forces in a nation-state can alter the national preferences of governments at the international level.

Using the Two-level Games theory, but substituting the relationship between the domestic level (nation-state) and the international level (EU etc.) with the regional level (Northern Ireland) and the national level (United Kingdom), one argues that the DUP-Conservative deal could be a path to a Soft Brexit providing that the DUP act pragmatically by drawing upon regional opportunity structures that could inherently constrain the preference formation of the Conservative Party. This is made possible by the DUP’s influence over the fate of British minority government via the established deal. Indeed, for long term domestic and party-based benefits, the DUP will require to sacrifice their own agenda; an agenda which itself is fundamentally constraint by the very same opportunity structures.

Four opportunity structures have been currently identified as having potential influence from a two-level game model. These are: power-sharing constraints, the NI Brexit Referendum outcome, growing momentum in the United Ireland debate, and civil society/private sphere preferences and interests. The DUP would likely desire to refrain from utilising these structures in inter-party negotiations with the Conservatives. However, it would be politically nonsensical for the party to do; at least from a standpoint of party-credibility and sustainability. Additionally, channelling these opportunity structures effectively (albeit reluctantly) would be beneficial for assuring confidence in long-term devolution in the region, socio-political stability, and ensuring the best possible Brexit outcome for Northern Ireland in light of the majority interests.

This article is part of a series by authors presenting at this year’s PSAI Annual Conference. If you are a participant at this year’s conference and would like to have your work featured on the blog, please contact us and let us know.

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