The DemocraticUnionist Party (DUP)’s stance on Brexit has left it out of kilter with a key part of its constituency, the business community. It appears to have campaigned for a referendum result it did not expect and has recently drawn the attentions of Europe to a position on Customs Union and the Single Market that appears like shooting itself in its collective foot.
This is politically confusing since the Party has presented itself as the most pro-business of the North’s four main parties. Much of the Unionist ‘old money’ which once backed the Ulster Unionist Party now backs it.
Both Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton, as Economy Ministers, were seen as strongly probusiness. However, it is a paradox that Sinn Féin, perceived as having a notably more leftist stance, is more in tune with business in its stance on Brexit.
The North’s main business organisations were strongly pro-Remain. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) issued a statement with two other business organisations before the Referendum. This said: “Northern Ireland is the most vulnerable part of the UK in the event of the UK leaving the EU (confirmed by the recent Oxford Economics study) which will create enormous uncertainty, impacting on investment, jobs, and living standards for the next decade and beyond”.
At the time, the CBI’s Nigel Smyth said: “Every credible business survey has demonstrated majority support by Northern Ireland’s private sector employers for remaining within the EU. Being in the EU provides a strong platform for Northern Ireland to attract investment, and to export our goods and services, helping to create jobs and improve living standards”.
As First Minister, Foster criticised the Remain side for its “prophecies of doom,” though she was generally quite quiet through the campaign.
While the DUP was always Eurosceptic, it seems to have supported Brexit because of one of the burdens of its pervasive historical baggage, as well as its need to placate part of its base. There are ongoing questions about a £425,000 donation from a mysterious Scottishbased pro-Brexit group, recycled to buy advertising in Britain.
The Open Democracy website claims the donation was illegal and Parliament is investigating the matter. The Electoral Commission said in August it had investigated a “regulated entity” over failures to comply with election law and fined the entity £6,000. Further information was withheld under provisions of election law dating back to Northern Ireland’s Troubles that allow details of political donations in the province to be kept secret.
Significantly, at the start of the Referendum campaign Arlene Foster said “we fully expect that DUP members and voters will hold a range of differing personal views as to what is in the best interests of the United Kingdom. They are fully entitled to do so …”.
Pre-Referendum, there was no indication the DUP had prepared for the Leave victory. Indeed its political preparation for Brexit remains patchy, as we saw with its dramatically last-minute intervention as its ally Theresa May was on the cusp of agreeing a deal with the EU.
In January this year Hamilton launched his Department’s ‘Economy 2030 – a Draft Industrial Strategy for Northern Ireland’. Though the launch was six months after the Referendum, it included incredibly only one reference to the challenges of Brexit: “Exporting remains central to our Industrial Strategy and, with a changing economic landscape on the horizon as a result of exiting the European Union, it is vital that we are responsive and adaptable in the ways we seek to achieve our objectives on trading globally. We are already taking forward new approaches to drive improvements in our commercial success in overseas markets and this will continue and evolve as uncertainty around the future diminishes, and as new trading opportunities emerge in the future”.
Showing the same opaqueness of vision, there were only three mentions of work with the South and all refer to other jurisdictions also: the fruit of six months consideration of dealing with the Referendum’s result were wafer-thin.
Meanwhile, the DUP’s Westminster group is enjoying its day in the sun, propping up May’s government. That group is dominated by ‘old DUP’, while the group in the suspended Assembly is dominated by modernisers. This group, which inevitably appeals more both to the British and Irish governments and most of the media is anxious for restoration of the Assembly: not just from fear of losing salaries and expenses, but from fear of a Corbyn government, from which the Assembly would give a certain political protection.