British Prime Minister Theresa May has been something of a political punch bag over the last two years, pulled this way and that by different factions within her party who all want a different version of Brexit.
Now she faces another crisis as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) threatens to bring down her government because her Brexit deal proposes a slightly different status for Northern Ireland than for the rest of the UK. Leader Arlene Foster, pictured above, said: “Of course there will be consequences. We could not as Unionists support a deal that broke up the United Kingdom.”
Arlene Foster on draft #Brexit deal: "As Unionists we could not support a deal that broke up the United Kingdom" says DUP leader, adding "there will be consequences" for a Commons vote
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) November 14, 2018
The problem arose because the referendum on leaving the European Union held in 2016 asked only one simple question: Do you want to leave the EU. Yes or No.
The question may have been simple, but the answer has proved virtually impossible to implement. Critics have pointed out that the question didn’t make any reference to how the UK should leave. The problem is it can do so in many ways.
Some people want to break all connection with the EU in what is described as Hard Brexit. Others want to stay as closely aligned to the EU as possible by remaining in its Single Market and Customs Union. Others are more concerned with ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice or putting a break on immigration.
All these warring factions have been tearing each other apart for two years. – and that’s just Mrs May’s own MPs inside the Conservative Party.
The rest of the country has even more diverse opinions, with the Liberal Democrats insisting there should be a second vote to remain in the EU. The Labour Party insisting Mrs May should stand aside and let them do the job, promising to negotiate an exit deal that would protect jobs and living standards.
In the middle of all this mayhem stand 10 members of the Democratic Ulster Unionist Party – as orange as the evening sun but not nearly so warm and welcoming as far as Mrs May is concerned.
They found themselves holding the balance of power when Mrs May failed to gain a majority in the UK General Election in 2017. She had to do a deal with the DUP to get their support to get enough votes in parliament to keep her government functioning.
The inducements included more than an extra £1billion pound for Northern Ireland. The way things have worked out, Mrs May must be wondering whether she should ask for her money back, especially when it comes to Brexit where the DUP have been a hindrance rather than a help to her.
The issue has been the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. After Brexit, it will also be the border between the UK and EU, creating problems of customs checks. All sides agree that there should be no return a hard border with manned posts stopping and checking people as that would contravene the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace 20 years ago.
The problem is how to prevent the need for checks. Mrs May’s solution is for the UK to stay in a customs arrangement with the EU so that customs checks would not be necessary. But that only partly solves the problem.
The solution would see Northern Ireland effectively remaining in the Single Market, unlike the rest of the UK, and there would be still need to be some checks affecting it that do not apply to the rest of the UK.
Some would see that as a good thing. Scotland is already making noises that it wants to be able to stay in the Single Market in the same way. Huge numbers of people in Northern Ireland may also see it that way, considering that they voted by 56% majority to stay in the EU and are only being dragged out of it because of the huge pro-Leave vote in England,
But the DUP see it differently. They regard any difference between Northern Ireland and the UK as undermining the integrity of the United Kingdom and their position in it.
Their insistence on being treated the same as the rest of the UK may have more credibility if they weren’t happy to diverge in other ways, such as opposition to gay marriage and abortion, but the irony is lost on them.
The DUP have threatened to bring down Mrs May’s government if she doesn’t scrap her plans, However, in a rare act of defiance, she has decided to face them down.
She is going ahead with her Brexit plan and despite widespread opposition, thinks she can get it through the British parliament, with or without the DUP.
This has led to screams of betrayal by the DUP but so far Mrs May is remaining steadfast, insisting that the deal is the best way of avoiding a hard border in Ireland, something that the EU and the Republic insist upon if the UK is to go on to negotiate a successful trade deal.