Why Theresa May's Brexit Figleaf May Not Bring DUP Onside

(Bloomberg) -- Theresa May is banking on her Northern Irish allies caving in to get her Brexit deal over the line. That hope may be misplaced.

The Democratic Unionist Party has softened its tone in recent weeks, fueling hope among officials in London that it will swayed by the minor concessions the European Union is prepared to offer the prime minister to secure an agreement.

Why Theresa May's Brexit Figleaf May Not Bring DUP Onside

The DUP is looking for an excuse to move, according to some officials, especially with business and farming lobby groups supporting the backstop, which is designed to keep the Irish border invisible. Yet close observers of the DUP insist that might be a misreading.

“Without a significant change from the EU, I can’t see how they could be brought on board,” said Richard Bullick, a former adviser to party leader Arlene Foster. “I think the exact mechanism of doing so is less important than the legal consequence of any change, but that would represent a total reverse on the part of the EU.”

The DUP, whose 10 lawmakers prop up May’s minority Conservative government, opposes the backstop because it treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. Its Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson on Wednesday dismissed the idea that an arbitration system would be acceptable to resolve issues around the backstop, arguing that only a time-limit would be acceptable when May’s deal is put to a House of Commons vote by March 12.

The conundrum facing negotiators is akin to a Rubik’s Cube, according to one official. Solving one side -- by giving the U.K. a clear, legally binding escape route from the backstop -- creates problems for the other side by undermining the “bulletproof” mechanism Ireland demands.

The likelihood then is that U.K. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox wins only relatively insignificant concessions from the bloc, according to Mujtaba Rahman, managing director at Eurasia Group. That might allow Cox to say “on the balance of probability” the backstop is not indefinite, he said.

Why Theresa May's Brexit Figleaf May Not Bring DUP Onside

‘Very Clear’

Yet, such an outcome falls short of the demands DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds laid out this week. In an interview with the BBC, Dodds said the changes Cox brings back from Brussels must make it “very, very clear that the current meaning of the agreement is reopened and changed.”

Dodds is the most reliable weather vane of the party’s thinking, according to DUP observers. But some think his words may prove no more than a negotiating ploy, predicting the party will buckle after Cox wins even a modest concession on the backstop.

“That will likely win round the DUP, who will portray it as a victory for their hard line approach,” said Rahman, who this week put the chances of a deal being passed by Parliament at 55 percent.

Why Theresa May's Brexit Figleaf May Not Bring DUP Onside

Pressure on the party is mounting. Bombardier Inc., which employs around 4,000 people in Belfast, is lobbying the DUP to move on the backstop, the Financial Times reported on Wednesday. The company has openly supported the plan since last year.

But the party’s voters at least are showing little appetite to surrender. About 70 percent of unionists don’t want Northern Ireland to have special status after Brexit, according to a poll by LucidTalk in December.

“Unless there are legally binding changes to the backstop to prevent Northern Ireland being separated from the rest of the U.K. then the party should rightly oppose any deal Theresa May attempts to bring back to Parliament, ” said Aaron Elliott, a 19-year-old student from Enniskillen, Foster’s hometown.

That view was shared by Dean McCullough, 24, a community worker from north Belfast. “Arlene has been resolute but fair,” he said. “The DUP should continue to oppose the backstop. If the Irish government and European Union want to erect borders, that is a matter for them.”

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