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October 17, 2019

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The Stormont question

There is now a draft deal on the table this morning, but the DUP has just said that it cannot accept the deal as it stands. This is a setback clearly, and will make it harder for Boris Johnson to agree and for the parliament to pass. The European Council starts today, but there are now only a few hours left for the latest problems to be solved - if indeed they can be solved.

We have yet to hear the detailed reasoning of the DUP. But the BBC journalist Adam Fleming got some of the details of the draft as they relate to Northern Ireland. The main point is that the backstop mechanism of the last withdrawal agreement is replaced by a voting procedure with the following elements:

  • Northern Ireland will remain in the UK customs territory, but applies EU customs procedures, which means that there will be no customs border - this bit was known before; UK already agreed regulatory convergence - no need for an intra-Irish border;
  • the Northern-Irish assembly at Stormont will take a vote on whether to continue the arrangements or not four years after the end of the transition at the end of 2020;
  • the assembly can choose one of two voting methods: a simply majority or a vote on a cross-community basis - we presume this is similar in principle to qualified majority voting in the EU;
  • if a vote were carried on a cross-community basis, there would be another vote eight years later;
  • if the assembly voted to end the arrangements, there would be two-year notice period during which EU and UK would hold negotiations on the border and to preserve the peace process;
  • if there is no vote, for example if the assembly is suspended, the agreed arrangements will persist.

the big idea behind this arrangement is that no single community could force the issue: the DUP is the biggest party in Northern Ireland, but the Irish nationalists can always force a suspension. 

So what is the DUP's game plan? 

The journalist Tom McTague from the Atlantic magazine noted that the DUP has to weigh a number of issues - including of course the consequences of saying No and blocking the entire Brexit deal. Because of its leverage over at least some Tory MPs from the European Research Group, it would be almost impossible to get a majority without the DUP. We wrote yesterday that the DUP wants money, but they also want to retain at least some significant involvement in the future of the process. And, like every other party at Westminster, they need to consider the electoral implications as a general election is  now very likely to take place soon. The electoral risks cuts both ways - the Northern Irish electorate could penalise the DUP for a no-deal Brexit, but they would also penalise the DUP for agreeing to another Northern-Irish sell out. McTague suggests that the electoral impact may be the single most important consideration for the DUP.

And finally, for those who are still holding out for a second referendum, and who believe that it could easily be won: the problem with most of the polls is that they confound a person’s position on Brexit - Remain vs Leave - with how they would vote in a second referendum. We know a lot of Remainers who believe that the first referendum results needs to be respected, and who would vote no in a second referendum. A ComRes poll for Channel 5 news produced a more granular survey, and came up with a 50-42 split in favour Leave under a concrete 2nd referendum setting. When they asked the question whether the 2016 referendum results should be honoured, the response was 54% in favour, and 32% against. It is one poll only - and the numbers are probably going to swing backwards and forwards. But we should be under no illusion that public opinion on Brexit has shifted since the referendum. We see no signs of that.

Our other stories

We also have stories on the consequences of persistent French bashing; on Germany asking for a EU budget rebate; on how the French/German arms exports agreements will keep Germany in the role of junior partner; on the roadmap to banking union; and on the rising global vulnerability to US dollar funding.

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