Specter of a United Ireland Behind DUP Block on Brexit Border Deal

Back in June, when it became clear that the general election Theresa May called to "strengthen her hand" had had the opposite effect, the prime minister had to turn to an unlikely savior; the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who agreed to prop up her government in a "confidence and supply" deal.

But on December 4, as Brexit talks between May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker ended without a hoped-for agreement, it seemed clear that the DUP had turned from a help to a hindrance, at least as far as May's Brexit plans were concerned.

May and Juncker, who had hoped to secure a draft preliminary deal for the first phase of the Brexit talks, indicated on Monday afternoon that a "couple" of issues remained outstanding.

DUP Arlene Foster
DUP leader Arlene Foster speaks at her party's annual conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland, November 25, 2017. Foster is taking a hard line on Brexit talks. Andrew Paton/Reuters

Their press conference followed a phone called between May and DUP leader Arlene Foster. While neither Downing Street nor the DUP would comment on the content of the call, both the BBC and the Financial Times have reported that disagreements between the two on the status of the Irish border after Brexit made up at least part of the reason for the failure of talks.

On Monday afternoon, after reports emerged claiming that the U.K. was set to commit to "regulatory alignment" between Northern Ireland and the Republic, Foster said: "We will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom."

The DUP's Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson, appearing on Sky News shortly after the end of the talks, said that "when we talk about regulatory convergence or regulatory continuity or regulatory... alignment, that is simply EU speak for keeping Northern Ireland inside the customs union and inside the single market." The DUP campaigned for a Brexit vote.

So why has the DUP held this line so firmly? "To be perfectly honest I'm surprised," said Professor John Garry of Queens University Belfast, referring to the DUP's consistent, unbending opposition throughout the Brexit talks to any kind of special status for Northern Ireland in terms of its relationship to the EU. "It's a bit surprising because it's hard to know how they're going to get what they want on it."

After all, the DUP is willing to accept differences between Great Britain and Northern Ireland when it suits them. For example, abortion remains more heavily restricted in the province than the rest of the U.K., and gay marriage is still banned there. Both are positions backed by the socially conservative DUP.

But, Garry added, one possible reason for the DUP's insistence could be long-term concerns about any future potential referendum on Northern Ireland joining the south and leaving the U.K.

"A unionist would be fearful," Garry said, "that if the end game of the Brexit negotiations means that they are somehow kicked off in a rowing boat, that sails them away from Britain and they're superglued to another rowing boat on regulation matters which is the Republic of Ireland."

"Then Northern Ireland could look just ever increasingly like the Republic of Ireland and ever increasingly unlike Britain on these economic matters, and that could be a gradual boat to a united Ireland."