As May Scrambles to Save Brexit, ‘Doctor No’ Party Stands Firm

  • DUP has long history of resisting any weakening of union
  • Foster won’t cave in easily to pressure for Brexit deal

U.K.'s May Faces Cabinet Revolt Amid Brexit Deadline

"You can’t have your cake and eat it" has always been the European Union’s mantra in Brexit negotiations. It turns out maybe Northern Ireland could, but history doesn’t bode well for an agreement.

The province is probably the only part of the U.K. that the EU might ultimately allow to have unimpeded access to both the British and single European markets following Brexit, according to a European diplomat involved in the negotiations.

Trouble is, the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party that props up Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is adamant it won’t do anything that might weaken the union with the rest of the U.K.

Ian Paisley

Photographer: JB Reed/Bloomberg

The DUP was led for almost 40 years by Protestant preacher Ian Paisley, a man nicknamed "Doctor No" for refusing to back down. It remains the party’s defining trait as incumbent leader Arlene Foster on Monday torpedoed the U.K.’s effort to move Brexit talks on. Little in the party’s history suggests she’ll be easily swayed from that position.

“They are turning out to be purer than even the hard Brexiteers," said Stephen Farry, deputy leader of the Alliance Party and a former employment and learning minister in the power-sharing government in Belfast. "So, the question might end up being: does Theresa May face them down and is that a risk she wants to take?”

Alien Politics

The sticking point is the future of Northern Ireland’s open border with the Republic of Ireland to the south, what will be the only land frontier between the U.K. and EU after Brexit. DUP lawmakers in London on Tuesday said they disagreed with the wording of a draft Brexit agreement they were shown a day earlier and blamed the Irish government.

The party has dug in before, partly a reflection of how it’s bound up with identity politics in a way that’s alien to most U.K. and European politicians.

In the mid-1980s, Paisley led massive "Ulster Says No" rallies in Belfast, when at least 100,000 turned out to protest what they saw as a threat to the union. The party also walked out of the negotiations that eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement, the accord cementing the peace process after decades of sectarian conflict.

One glimmer of hope for May is that the DUP has shown it’s capable of compromise. In 2001, Paisley told U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair that “our people might be British, but our cows are Irish” as he sought to exploit looser regulations south of the border at the height of the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic, according to an adviser to then British leader.

Six years later, Paisley became leader of the Belfast power-sharing government with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army member, as his deputy.

The executive, though, also serves as a reminder to May of the DUP’s steadfastness. It remains suspended after Sinn Fein brought it down in January as the DUP refused to cave in for calls for Foster to step aside until an investigation into her role in a costly renewable energy initiative was complete.

The government in Northern Ireland is one “of constant negotiation -- the DUP has been negotiating every day for 10 or 15 years,” said Farry. “They can be pragmatic, but if anyone thinks they are easily rolled over, that’s wrong.”

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