Nearer my God to thee: The DUP, Brexit and the bridge to Scotland
Desperate people say desperate things to try and get out of desperate situations. And there is little more desperate than the Brexiters tackling ‘The Irish Question’. There is an oft repeated mantra about the Irish border which states that you can only have two out of the following options at any one time: a Customs Union exit, no Special Status for Northern Ireland and no hard border.
The British government is trying to achieve all three at once.
The only way to have all three would mean an Irexit which is just not going to happen, no matter what Jacob Rees-Mogg may think.
To solve this, the late and unlamented Brexit Secretary David Davis - whose level of self-confidence is directly proportional to his level of mediocrity - had been engaging his galaxy brain. Week after week, he pulled out ever more desperate border solutions out of his arse, be it ‘regulatory alignment’ or the unshakeable faith in ‘technological solutions’ that haven’t been invented yet.
The absolute nadir of this line of thinking was the unfathomable ‘buffer zone’ which proposed that in order to avoid customs checks on the border, they’d move the checks ten miles either side. We can all agree this was an awful solution of which the only good by-product was the wonderful day of snark and memes that it produced. The fact is it cannot be done and if it could he wouldn’t have been desperately vomiting out such farcical proposals with gay abandon.
His resignation on the 8th of July was the final admission that he couldn’t negotiate his way past this issue. With the UK government having already agreed in principle to ‘no hard border’ and Davis exhausted of ‘ideas’, the ‘buccaneering’ DD decided his vision for Brexit could only be delivered from the outside looking in.
Although Nigel Dodds, the leader of Theresa May’s captors/partners-in-government, was cautiously welcoming of the Chequers ‘agreement’ that precipitated last Monday’s chaos, Sammy Wilson was at his most combative/obnoxious., He expressed sympathy with Davis’ position, saying (with a hint of relish) that his departure was a ‘blow’ for the PM. This was before the news of Ian Paisley Jr.'s suspension of course, another 'blow' for the PM.
Interestingly Wilson also raised the spectre of a ‘no deal’ scenario which, according to him ‘nobody wants but will affect your country [Ireland] the worst’, managing to make it sound a lot more like a threat than a note of caution. As one of the most committed Brexiters, Wilson did not sound convincing because, by this stage, Britain has painted itself into such a corner.
By agreeing in principle to ‘no hard border in Ireland or the Irish sea’ it means that No Deal is now the only available option for hard Brexiters to get what they want. Hard Brexiters like Wilson. Hard Brexiters like, well, the DUP.
‘No Deal’ or no deal
Ideologically and, perhaps, financially tied to Brexit by this stage, the DUP have quietly accepted that the type of Brexit they are lobbying for - out of customs union, no special status for NI - will absolutely ensure some sort of hard border. They haven’t publicly admitted it of course (and honestly, how much would it harm them if they did) but they’ve betrayed their private thinking with two increasingly recurrent memes they’ve been floating.
The first is the increased pressure from the DUP and their European Research Group allies to enshrine the principle of ‘no Irish Sea border’ into law, perhaps an increasing fear that they will be shafted in this way. It has been suggested that May’s only hope for getting the Chequer’s agreement through was by bypassing the DUP and hoping for enough Labour votes to make up number.
The DUP’s Brexit Kingpin Jeffrey Donaldson, has again brought up this idea, sounding remarkably/suspiciously chill about the prospect of No Deal, saying it was ‘better than a border in the Irish Sea’.
The second is one of their most fanciful wheezes yet: The Bridge to Scotland.
Brexit, combined with the geography of the UK, has become the DUP’s biggest enemy in terms of maintaining the union. Any rational person trying to solve Brexit would say ‘let’s give Northern Ireland special status and be done with it as it keeps the border open and the natural sea border can be turned into a customs border without too much hassle anyway.
It would probably be the solution most of Northern Ireland would vote for, maintaining the Union but ensuring agriculture and energy co-operation between the two parts of Ireland can continue. As far as the DUP are concerned, this is not to happen, as anything which makes NI more like Ireland and less like Great Britain is just a no-go.
Never mind that the DUP are keen to lower NI’s corporation tax rate to match Ireland’s, or that they were also happy to maintain similar laws to the Republic regarding abortion and same-sex marriage prior to the two recent referendums. Their insistence on this exposes the nonsense of their claims that ‘the border will be no issue anyway’ when clearly they regard an Irish sea border as an issue.
They also face accusations of isolating Northern Ireland if a hard border was to result from the conclusion of Brexit. Not only that, but the argument for maintaining NI’s place in the union would lose all practical basis, relying almost entirely on people’s feeling of nationality and loyalty to the UK. Put simply, it will make Irish Unity almost inevitable in the long term.
A bridge too far
This is where the bridge comes in.
A bridge to Scotland isn’t a new idea - with the DUP suggesting carrying out a feasibility study into it in 2015 - but it is no coincidence that they’ve increasingly refloated the idea since the absolute intractability of the border situation became clear.
Even the man who was brought on to champion the project on Talkback, Ben Lowry, denounced people for naysaying the bridge before conceding he would be unlikely to see it in his lifetime.
However ridiculous a notion it may be, it has still been covered extensively by the media, supported by Boris Johnson (no stranger to White Elephants) and discussed in Ards and North Down Council after some local representatives lobbied for the bridge to be located in Donaghadee.
It would become almost completely redundant in the event of Northern Ireland leaving the UK – becoming a customs nightmare and end up being Northern Ireland’s equivalent of the Springfield Monorail. “Voting for Irish Unity means condemning this wonderful, hideously expensive bridge to history” they will cry.
With increased chatter about Irish unity following the referendums on same-sex marriage, Brexit and now abortion access, the DUP are maybe starting to realise the Union is much more fragile than it has been since partition.
The bridge would create a scapegoat of any naysayers when the Irish border hardens. It’s easy to imagine the cries of “we told you so and we offered you a solution but you rejected it.”
It’s more believable to think this scapegoating has been part of the plan all along. Brexiters, including the likes of Ian Paisley and Sammy Wilson, have always repeated the common refrain “Britain won’t be putting up a hard border and if there is one its because the EU put it there!”
You’ll also hear the galaxy brained take of “if Ireland wants to avoid a hard border they should leave the EU as well!”. And then of course the well-worn “if the economy falters it is because you talked Brexit down!”
It is totally disingenuous, and they know it, but it never harms to prepare the ground for a scapegoat before the inevitable happens.
Crass and insulting
The actual practical problems of the bridge itself have, obviously, barely been tackled.
More than anything though, this vanity notion shows the DUP’s continued contempt of working class Protestants, a community that they are happy enough to whip up fear within and farm votes out of without doing a single thing to make their lot in life better. Yet they will happily squander billions on a bridge which will be a luxury at best.
Will poorer people actually be able to afford the inevitable toll that would be charged? Anything that’s less affordable than the ferry is basically a Middle-Class boondoggle. (Not to mention the petrol costs of driving a near 300 mile round trip if you are wanting to go to somewhere like Glasgow).
When there is still serious educational underachievement within their voting base, widespread mental health problems and still little movement on integrated education, the notion of spending tens of billions on a piece of infrastructure with limited use is crass and insulting. Combined with their seemingly relaxed stance of a no deal Brexit which will directly affect the lives of most of Northern Irish population and almost certainly the most impoverished areas the worst. What will they tell their voters when the lights go out?
For now though, we need to see these calls for what they are. It’s all simply red meat for the devout, the fringe hardline that is relatively happy with the prospect of a border going up (and for some reason the DUP seem awfully keen to try and appease). Most importantly for the DUP though, it is yet another Brexit gambit, that they can throw at all those who say the DUP are fanatical, backward, isolationist and endangering the Union by pushing for a No Deal Brexit.
The DUP know it isn’t going to happen.
But they are well practised masters of distraction and whataboutery and are now taking his skill honed in local politics and applying it on the national stage.
We can only hope that the higher profile they are currently enjoying continues to show them up to be utterly out of their depth outside of Northern Ireland’s binary hell. Their ideological obsession with a hard Brexit coupled with the unexplained funding they received from the Constitutional Research Council might just cause their supporters to finally conclude that their motivation seems to be everything but the meeting the basic needs of their constituents.
Maybe at long last the day is coming that these charlatans will be held to account electorally once everyone truly sees them for what they are.