The roots of the UK’s forthcoming election lie in Brexit – and Westminster’s inability to agree on what to do about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This issue will therefore be particularly central in campaigns for seats in Northern Ireland.
Unionist parties oppose Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal and, in particular, the suggestion that there would be a border in the Irish Sea after Brexit. Both the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) have denounced this as a grave threat to the union and will be arguing as much over the coming weeks. However, data from our survey indicates that unionist voters might not feel quite so strongly about this border proposal when it is packaged with other policy dimensions.
Could the DUP have weakened its position by opposing Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal? It has, since the last election, played a very powerful role in Westminster. Now it could even lose seats.
The DUP is much more opposed to Johnson’s Brexit deal with the EU than the one reached by his predecessor Theresa May, with its hated “Irish backstop” element. This was only intended as a temporary arrangement, but the prospect of Northern Ireland diverging from UK regulations even to this extent was enough to make the DUP vote against it.
Johnson’s revamped deal potentially places a permanent customs border in the Irish Sea. From the DUP’s perspective, it annexes Northern Ireland economically from Great Britain and pushes it closer to Ireland.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson recently made some outlandish claims about the DUP winning many more seats in Westminster in this election because opposition to the border is so strong. But what if the DUP is overestimating unionist sentiment?
We found that when you connect the east-west post-Brexit border with other issue choices, presenting it as part of a package rather than an isolated issue, most people end up accepting the proposal – even within the unionist community.
It’s clear that there is a large degree of unionist opposition to such a border when it is presented by itself, but people become more flexible when mitigating factors are brought into the picture. For example, they might be more open to having an east-west border if they are reassured that border checks were to be electronic, with only some random physical checks of goods crossing the border. That becomes preferable to the prospect of physical checks on all goods at the border, which might follow a no-deal Brexit.
When offered the prospect of a substantial increase in public spending in Northern Ireland and co-operation with the Republic of Ireland on the costs of and control over the border, unionists also become more open to the idea.
Presenting the border as part of a wider package is arguably a more realistic way to gauge attitudes than asking for opinions on an individual issue. This is because compromise agreements tend to be defined by what is acceptable to most people, rather than what they find most desirable. Objectionable dimensions are balanced out by more attractive options.
When considered in association with other elements of an agreement (such as the intrusiveness of border checks, the amount of financial compensation available and the oversight mechanisms employed), it may be that the current Brexit deal could become acceptable to unionist voters.
Pressure on the DUP
How all of this shakes out in the election in Northern Ireland is difficult to predict, but the DUP faces a tough test. It has has been close to the Brexit negotiations and now opposes the outcome of them. There are grounds for believing that the DUP could struggle to return the ten MPs it has, never mind adding more.
Our survey suggests voters might not be completely responsive to the idea that an east-west border is a threat to the United Kingdom. Those voters who do think this is an exaggeration may feel the DUP is responsible for the current situation. It could have provided the crucial votes to help May ratify her version of the Brexit deal, avoiding the need for a permanent border in the Irish Sea – not to mention a Christmas election. It is conceivable that such people might vote for the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) or for the resurgent Alliance Party instead of backing the DUP.
And those who buy the argument that the current Brexit deal and prospect of a border in the Irish Sea presents an existential threat to the union might well blame the DUP for delivering it. Indeed, Steve Aiken, the newly appointed leader of the UUP, has set out to make the DUP “own” the withdrawal agreement. He argues that his political rivals for the unionist vote are responsible for creating the biggest threat to the union in recent times. These voters might vote for the UUP, or the smaller Traditional Unionist Voice, or simply stay at home on December 12.
While the DUP faces competition from two directions, pro-Remain parties are striking electoral pacts to maximise their chances against it. Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) are cooperating to maximise the Remain vote in seats currently held by the unionists. This will present a big challenge to Nigel Dodds, the leader of the DUP in Westminster, as he tries to hold on to his North Belfast seat. The party also faces strong challenges in South and East Belfast from the SDLP and Alliance Party respectively.
Far from dramatically increasing its Westminster seats by opposing the Brexit deal, the DUP may be overemphasising the issue and compromising its electoral prospects as a result.