Why May’s Hardline Irish Friends Aren’t Likely to Soften Brexit
Arlene Foster was a small girl when the Irish Republican Army shot her father, a part-time policeman in Northern Ireland. She was a teenager when a bomb exploded underneath her school bus. Another one ripped through her home town of Enniskillen.
Almost three decades later, Foster, 47, is now leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, which holds the balance of power in the U.K. Parliament and agreed last week to support Prime Minister Theresa May. As talks to leave the European Union intensify over the summer, the lingering sectarian divide she represents in the province doesn’t bode well for advocates of a Brexit deal that keeps Britain in Europe’s single market.
The DUP’s new-found influence following last month’s election raised speculation that May will soften her stance on exiting Europe’s customs union given how reliant Northern Ireland is on open trade with the Irish Republic to the south. Foster has said she wants a “sensible” Brexit and a “frictionless border,” but the reality is that her party and its supporters backed leaving the EU and their allegiance to the U.K. is staunch.
“The DUP was hard-line Brexit before, during and after the referendum,” said Nicholas Whyte, a visiting professor at Ulster University. “They care about their base, like all political parties, and their base voted for Brexit. They want a hard Brexit, and there is zero sign of a change in attitude.”
The Brexit referendum carved up Northern Ireland between “Remainers” and “Leavers” just as it did in the rest of the U.K. The difference is that it also split the province along the sectarian lines that still exist almost 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement largely ended the violence that killed thousands in tit-for-tat murder.
Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU by 56 percent to 44 percent. That was because of strong support among Catholics rather than the Protestants who back unionist parties like the DUP, according to John Garry, Professor of political behavior at Queens University in Belfast. Catholics voted to stay by 85 percent, while Protestants voted to leave by 60 percent, Garry said. Three quarters of DUP voters opted to leave, he said.
The division was evident again this week with Sinn Fein, which represents nationalists who want a united Ireland, and the DUP at odds over a deal to save their power-sharing agreement in Belfast.
Sinn Fein wants Northern Ireland afforded special status after Brexit. DUP lawmakers reject that, and want to exit the customs union. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, is warning customs controls may have to be reintroduced.
Northern Ireland remained part of the U.K. when the rest of Ireland gained independence from Britain in 1922, and border controls largely fell away in the 1990s.
The concern in Foster’s home region of Fermanagh, whose biggest town is Enniskillen, is that duties will increase the cost of trade and hurt the livelihoods of the hoteliers and farmers that make up the backbone of the local economy. In the short term, the 13 percent drop in the pound against the euro since the Brext vote a year ago has helped.
The slump in the currency is “the best thing that could happen to us, to be honest,” said Michael Beare, who runs the Finn Lough resort in Fermanagh, where euro-spending guests from the Irish Republic now account for 70 percent of bookings versus 15 percent the year before. “The cheaper pound makes us cheaper and more competitive.”
Fermanagh’s 60,000 population is sprinkled between majority Protestant areas in the north of the county and nationalist areas in the south. As a whole, the region opposed Brexit.
During the “Troubles,” more than 100 people were killed in the area surrounding Enniskillen, mainly British soldiers by the IRA. The most infamous incident was in 1987, when an IRA bomb killed a dozen people commemorating Britain’s war dead on Remembrance Day in an attack that became known as the Poppy Day Massacre.
Thirty years on, much of the bitterness is gone and it’s hard to find the flags and other visible sectarian symbols that are apparent elsewhere in Northern Ireland. Paul Robinson, a local DUP councilor and farmer in the area where Foster’s father was attacked, is confident there would be no return to the past.
Brexit will mean a “hardening of the border on a political level,” he said. “But economically I don’t think it will harm farmers at all. It’ll work out alright.”
—with assistance from Mike Browne and Peter Flanagan