THIS week I raised a large dram of Northern Ireland’s finest – an excellent 10-year-old Bushmills distilled in County Antrim, in case you are interested – and offered a heartfelt toast: “Thank heavens for the DUP.”
The flinty-eyed ladies and gentlemen of the Democratic Unionist Party were steadfast and defiant for many years in the face of IRA killers – at a time, let’s not forget, when members of the current Labour front bench were enthusiastically cheering the terrorists on.
So, given their record of courage and integrity, it was always hugely unlikely that our friends in Ulster would capitulate before such swaggering bullies as Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier.
What we witnessed this week was the DUP inserting a bit of much needed backbone into the quivering spineless jellyfish that is the modern Conservative Party. Up until Monday this week Prime Minister Theresa May had apparently agreed to haul up the white flag and surrender to EU demands for “continued regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
If this had gone ahead, part of this United Kingdom would have been subject to continued foreign jurisdiction from Brussels – precisely what 17.4 million people voted against in the biggest exercise in democracy this country has ever seen. It would, in effect, have placed a hard border in the Irish Sea, and kept Northern Ireland in the single market and the customs union, thereby weakening the bonds of our union and giving the EU continued leverage over UK domestic affairs.
You have to wonder what possessed Mrs May to think she could get away with such abject submission. Even more incredibly no one on the British side thought to clear the agreed text with the DUP beforehand.
When the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, finally got sight of the deal on Monday this week – after five weeks of asking – she immediately slammed on the brakes.In calm tones that no doubt hid both fury and astonishment, she pointed out that the DUP would never accept any deal that treated Northern Ireland any differently from the rest of the UK.
This is important because the DUP is propping up Mrs May’s minority government. If the party withdraws its support, the Conservative government will collapse and we will have a general election, which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is likely to win.
So game over. Mrs May was forced to scrap the deal and the victory shouts from the EU side died in their throats.
What is becoming increasingly apparent is that the general election result earlier this year, seen at the time as a disaster for the Conservative Party, was in fact a blessing in disguise.
If Mrs May, who fought on the Remain side in the 2016 EU referendum, had won a big majority earlier this year, as she expected, she would have been free to acquiesce to every demand from the EU no matter how unreasonable.
The precarious position of the Conservative Party in Parliament – and in the opinion polls – is our best hope that the will of the people to leave the EU completely is carried out. As for Northern Ireland, there is absolutely no need to erect a so-called hard border. Indeed it is the Brexiteers who are pushing for free-trade deals between the UK and the EU, and the Remainers and the “build bridges not walls” crowd who are constantly threatening to erect border controls.
If border controls are imposed by the EU – and frankly I don’t see this happening – it would indeed be bad news for the UK economy, as the Republic of Ireland is a significant trading partner accounting for about five per cent of British exports.
But the damage to the UK would be absolutely dwarfed by the total disaster that would befall Irish companies that depend on the UK for almost 14 per cent of total exports.
If the Irish Republic is really determined to destroy its economy by erecting a hard border, then there is little we can do to stop them – but believe me, this isn’t going to happen.
A far better solution would be for the Irish Republic to throw off the yoke of the undemocratic and unaccountable EU and become a free, independent nation once again. It would then be able to strike a free trade deal with its biggest and most important customer – the UK.
And perhaps we could persuade our Irish friends to rejoin the Commonwealth of Nations?