4 Oct 2016

Tories look to increase majority with DUP deal

The Irish Times today has a report about Northern Ireland seeking “special status” post-Brexit.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP MP, is quoted as saying: “What we’re really looking for is a special deal for the island of Ireland which enables free movement of goods and people on the island, and preserves the institutions we’ve created under the various agreements.”

A sign saying welcome to Northern Ireland is seen on the border of Armagh and Louth in Ireland June 27, 2016. Picture taken June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne - RTX2JH24

Officials are looking at whether digital tracking can do the work that customs officers on borders normally do, somehow giving reassurance that large-scale customs avoidance isn’t happening if Britain, as expected, leaves the customs union as part of the Brexit deal.

They’re hoping national insurance number checks could overcome concerns about a immigration flows too.

The DUP are here in Birmingham at the Tory Conference in very big numbers, bigger than I’ve ever seen. They’ve held a very well attended “Champagne Reception” this lunchtime in an art gallery packed with pictures of the Rolling Stones. Hard to imagine Rev Ian Paisley in this setting.

Earlier, Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Nigel Dodds, DUP Westminster leader, dropped in on Theresa May at her conference hotel for a coffee.

The government is on a charm offensive with the DUP and the party has never been shy of using its parliamentary strength to best effect.

An early General Election, more talked about at Labour’s Conference than here, may have just got less necessary.

The government has a paper majority of 12. Factoring in the absence of Sinn Fein MPs who don’t take up their seats, and taking out the Speaker and Deputy Speakers, the majority is currently effectively 16.

If the DUP’s 8 MPs regularly voted with the government that would take the majority to 32. No wonder one of the attendees at the DUP devil’s buttermilk reception was the Conservatives’ Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson. He’ll be hoping the DUP can make his job easier and they seem decidedly up for that.

It’s not as if the DUP is being lured into the rival camp. There has been barely one word exchanged with the Labour leadership since Jeremy Corbyn took over.

At the commemorations for the Somme centenary, Labour MP Kate Hoey asked Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster if she’d ever met Jeremy Corbyn. Mrs Foster said she hadn’t and so was led over for introductions. Jeremy Corbyn said: “Hello.” And that, friends of Mrs Foster say, is just about the only word exchanged.

In years past, Labour governments cultivated Northern Ireland MPs to help them win knife-edge votes. Labour governments splashed money on Northern Ireland when numbers were tight. Labour is currently in a very different place and the DUP see virtually no common cause with the current Labour leadership.

So the field is open for some kind of Con-DUP arrangement and that’s what seems to be taking shape. It’s not, Arlene Foster insists, a “pact.” It seems more like an understanding: a presumption of support linked to a right to be consulted and looked after.

I thought I saw pound signs in Mrs Foster’s eyes today, and with EU money being whipped away from Northern Ireland, the DUP leader has good reason to be trading.

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