The one incomprehensible and inexplicable thing about Brexit: why did the Democratic Unionist Party support it?

5th July 2021

There will be many things about Brexit which will seem foolish or knavish.

Bad things that will make you sad or mad.

But usually you can work out the ‘why’ about the thing in question – even if you disagree with it, or even loathe it.

It may be that somebody was incompetent or dishonest.

But there will be an explanation of some kind.

There is, however, one thing – at least – which will always be incomprehensible.

Why did the Democratic Unionist Party and other unionists in Northern Ireland support Brexit – either so strongly or at all.

The shared membership of the European Union north and south of the border on the island of Ireland was the best guarantee of the continuation of the union.

There would never be any great urgent need for a border poll, and no great urgent need for any fundamental change, from any perspective.

But by supporting Brexit – and supporting the Conservative government policy of Brexit meaning departure from the single market and the customs union – this has made a border poll more likely and also a vote for a united Ireland more likely.

If a mischievous demon had been tasked with finding the most effective way of sabotaging the union, that demon would also have cheered on first Brexit and then the Theresa May/Boris Johnson approach of departing from the single market and the customs union.

It is a decision so incomprehensible that the two usual explanatory models of bad political decisions – foolishness and knavery – do not provide assistance.

For to posit either as an explanation is to imply that a thing is explicable, rather than inexplicable.

As a scientist would say: it was not even wrong.

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48 thoughts on “The one incomprehensible and inexplicable thing about Brexit: why did the Democratic Unionist Party support it?”

  1. Doubtless some supported it because they dreamt of re-establishing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, complete with watchtowers and guard-dogs.
    Others because they just wanted to reflexly do the most über-British thing possible. Either way it has been a disaster and I am sure that the more thinking politicians among them were only too well aware of the consequences. They aren’t famous though for leading their people from the front.

  2. As a (very) interested observer of NI politics (and a visitor to NI maybe 30 times a year) there is a strand of loyalism/unionism that’s so opposed to any kind of rapprochement with the Republic of Ireland, and so opposed to any kind of engagement with the Republic that they simply saw Brexit as a way of slamming shut any further cross-border engagement & reversing some of the last 20 or so years, without realising that there was a risk that the border might not come down where they assumed it would come down.

    That strand of unionism/loyalism makes up a large part of the DUP base: as a consequence of the Belfast / GF agreement and follow-ons where politics is driven by fear of “the other” to either extreme – Sinn Fein on one and DUP on the other. However the DUP risked/risks being outflanked by the TUV (cf Conservative Policy when it fears its most vocal base being picked off by UKIP/Brexit Party). So to see off the risk of the TUV, they tack harder…

    However, if the past 40 years or so have shown anything, it’s that the vast majority of Parliament, and in particular English MPs, don’t really care for NI (indeed reflecting their voters’ views on NI), and don’t see slamming the door shut on the Republic as a sensible approach. That coupled with the need to deliver an English Brexit under an agreement with the EU that included the Republic of Ireland, meant that NI loyalism/unionism paid the price. The DUP presumably thought that THIS time, Westminster would change tack and slam a hard border on the island of Ireland. Ooops

    1. I totally agree. They did think it made a hard border probable. And never thought a Uk government would countenance a sea border. Just like the UK government said it would not. Until it did.

    2. I think that this sums up the peculiar psychology of the DUP, and of Ulster Unionism both politically and religiously in their inability to deal with it.
      It was the Treaty of Rome and therefore wrong. Paisley was big on this.
      Mainstream Unionism and the PCI were incapable of dealing with Paislyism both politically and religiously, mainly because Paisley had, God help, us tapped into a deep spring which we have as a community, and was originally simply saying in public what people thought in private. Then when the troubles got going – of which Paisley was if, not the only begetter far from innocent, political Unionism was under threat, and the riding generation of Presbyterians were going down that road.

      Now, 50 years later we have Brexit, which merely reflects the PCI leaving the World Council of Churches in 1980 or thereabouts.
      The whole thing is unintelligible to anyone not steeped in the whole Ulster Unionist neurosis. (and I was brought up in it and left 40 years ago)

  3. I believe that some just went along with whatever the English establishment wanted. This was aligning the DUP with a very pro-British party and did not consider any consequences. Bit like expelling all the foreign truck drivers without a plan and then wondering why deliveries are not being made. Often rationality and Brexit live in different realms.

    1. Agree. My guess is the DUP wanted to assert its identification with the United Kingdom, to the exclusion of everything else. They didn’t think it through, but they were hardly alone. We never did see that ERG plan for Brexit Britain.

  4. Rationality is not the desired outcome.
    Like other millenarian groups, the DUP (membership dominated by ‘Free Presbyterians’) seek an impossible perfect and unattainable outcome. As such, rational analysis, and anything else that might lead to compromise, is seen as dangerous if not the work of the Devil.

  5. It isn’t incomprehensible. The DUP loathes the idea of cooperation with the Republic of Ireland, and sees any cooperative ventures as being the interference of the Republic in the affairs of the UK. It wants a hard border, politically.

    However, the DUP can’t overcome the realities of geography. There is a land border and people want to cross it. The nature of a land border between the EU and the UK can’t be the same as the old border when neither part of Ireland was part of the EU. Economically the two parts of Ireland are intertwined, as they always were, but even more so after a long period in a customs union. Even Unionists nip over the border for a bit of fishing and to buy fireworks, and recognise that American tourists “doing” Ireland are welcome on day trips to the Devils Causeway. There has been decades of the border being invisible other than the road signs looking different, the speed limits being in kmh or mph and the separate currencies.

    The DUP supported Brexit because it was a separation of Northern Ireland and the EU. And made a huge mistake, not least because it found it was dealing with people who hadn’t given the Irish border any thought when they campaigned for a Brexit or for the hardest of Brexits, and when faced with where to put the inevitable hard border, put it where it is economically less damaging than where the DUP wanted it.

  6. It is as simple as SF decided to become pro European so DUP felt that had to be anti. As a result DUP ended up in the pursuit of folly.

  7. On realising that a number of these politicians are creationists, it can been seen that rational thinking is not a process that is a burden to them.

    1. Yet there are many on the other side of Stormont with a similar affliction? No, I think it is their utter contempt for the fabric of the GFA that has brought us to this point.

  8. Their support is indeed inexplicable. But they have literally turned themselves inside out trying to justify the unjustifiable and by continuing to maintain that the Protocol has little to do with Brexit and is unnecessary. They want magic solutions and they want other people to provide them. That’s is very Brexit in thinking.

    The DUP have never been capable of deep thought and nobody would ever accuse them of strategic thinking. They are entirely reflexive and knee jerk in nature. They wished for the sunny uplands of Unionist supremacy once again as in “back to the future”. If they spent as much time looking forward as they do looking over their shoulders with nostalgia for a past that was brutally suppressive of their nationalist neighbours there might be some hope. But as usual somebody else will have to talk them off the ledge.

    The current malaise is not helped by the recklessness of London who continue to play games with the Protocol knowing full well that any concessions they obtain from the EU may well have broader applicability to GB. Utterly cynical and reckless behaviour. There are now very few adults left in the broader “Unionist” room. And that is truly tragic and very dangerous.

  9. Some things are indeed inexplicable, particularly amongst those of us brought up in the world of modern inductive science that stemmed from the Enlightenment. It is hard to conceive of another leader of a serious political party in the UK being a creationist believing that the world is no more than seven thousand years old. More to the point though, is the founder of the DUP, Ian Paisley’s old cry “No surrender” at at attempts to wrench his followers into a pragmatic settlement with the sons and daughters of “Popery”. What is deeply cynical is that the DUP is now claiming that the now sacrosanct Good Friday Agreement is in jeopardy because of the Northern Ireland Protocol. No-one should forget that the DUP was the only political party in Northern Ireland not to sign the GFA and to oppose it and vote against it at every turn, supported by British politicians like Gove who also vehemently opposed the GFA and sought to undermine it at every opportunity. Inexplicable – except perhaps to those of us with a very deep knowledge of Irish history and the self-satisfied and pious fundamentalist intransigence of the extreme Northern Irish Unionists.

  10. The Tories are after all ‘The Conservative and Unionist Party” and Unionists share a certain ideology with the dominant wing of the Tory party, harking back to earlier (unspecified) times. It’s worth reflecting that Enoch Powell ended up in the UUP, as MP for South Down.

    The difference is that Unionists like Powell believe the ideology. Modern Tories like Johnson believe in nothing except power.

  11. As one must remain polite in comments, it is not possible to cast aspersions about education, ignorance and intellectual capacity. In that case, is one allowed to suggest that venality might have had a role to play? After all the money that Theresa May gave to the DUP, did they think they might get more from the current PM? Just wondering.

  12. Foolish and knavish, obviously. But explicable I think, if you see it as the DUP’s failed gamble to reinstate a border between NI and Ireland and scrap the GFA, thereby (in their view) cementing the union forever.

    They underestimated Ireland’s strength within the EU.

  13. I see what you did there.

    “ There is mad
    And there is bad
    And there is sad
    And there is bad and sad.”

    – So-Called Dangerous, The Fall.

    I’ll add my tuppence hap’worth… The DUP supported it because Sinn Fein opposed it. I’ve ceased being amazed at the tribalism of NI politics, but this is one of its starkest illustrations.

    (RIP Mark E Smith)

  14. I don’t feel that the “answer” has yet surfaced to this question. I was mystified that the DUP chose to be pro Brexit when a significant majority of the population of Northern Ireland was anti, and I was even more mystified about the animosity towards Theresa May’s deal which protected the core Unionist position. To go along with Boris J when Unionist politicians have long been distrustful of his sort of politician is equally astounding to me.

  15. I should amend my comment to read ‘modern Tory politicians believe…’

    Powell was of course a vehement opponent of the UK joining the European Community and when thinking about the question you ask, Powell seems to me an emblematic figure.

  16. Remember the DUP opposed the Good Friday Agreement tooth & nail because in their view it conceded far too much to nationalists & “the South” who already were being far more favourably treated than unionists in general (in their view). That it provided a formula for peace was of no concern.

    Likewise the DUP found favour with the views expounded by the European Research Group in the run up to the 2016 vote & irrespective of the perceived threat to peace decided to plough the same furrow. It might be argued they never expected a brexit vote would carry the day but having made their bed (etc).

    For the DUP everything is measured by a impenetrable *belief* in Unionism & loyalty to the crown. Anything such as May’s backstop or Johnson’s front-stop which is seen to pose a threat by creating a barrier between NI & the “mainland” irrespective of any benefit is opposed for the simple reason it is incompatible with the hard line unionist belief system.

    There is no logic or rationale that can explain a deep-seated adherence to a hard line, fundamentalist belief system that to the outside world, causes irreparable damage to its disciples. The ethos of the DUP is based on one such.

  17. Perhaps, in a Putinesque way, the DUP don’t mind having an excuse to ramp up hostilities and reignite an unresolved conflict. People were surprised to hear them say “this undermines the GFA” as if they regret it. But they could hardly say gleefully that it undermines the GFA, as likewise they could never say that they sought a hard border, although we are all pretty sure that was what they were playing at. And it only undermines the GFA because they will undermine it, using this as an excuse.

    So perhaps this isn’t inexplicable. Perhaps it’s actually the best outcome the DUP, in their way of looking at things, could reasonably have hoped for. This hypothesis is also consistent with Poots’ brief reign. He tried to make peace.

  18. You seem to have adopted the premise that the DUP observed the anti-EU movement in mainland GB and then decided to join in with it. But in reality, the DUP were anti-EU before UKIP (let alone the Brexit Party) even existed. It’s a theological stance, from a party founded in Protestant fundamentalism. The party’s founder Rev Ian Paisley thought the EU was a ‘Papist plot’.

    Also, shooting oneself in the foot seems to be another founding principle of extreme unionism. So trying to apply normal logic to their thinking is another fundamental error.

  19. The simplest explanation is that for any question the DUP always vote ‘no’. Do you want to remain part of the EU? answer must be ‘no.’

  20. You fail to understand the fundamental driver of the DUP. It started as fundamentalist Protestant sect and anti catholic . Ian Paisley the founder of the DUP believed that the European project was a Catholic plot so everything about it had to be opposed. So the default position for the DUP is anti European and therefore pro Brexit even if in the wider scheme of things that is not a very sensible position

  21. The nature of the relationship between the 6 counties and the Republic changed over the period that the UK was in the EU. It became more integrated. The Republic became dramatically more secular and educated, as did a good part of the population of the North. The DUP, however, holds out against these changes, not so much because it loves the UK, but because it dislikes the South and the EU of which it is now a part. The Brexit position, thus taken, was ‘weaponised’ by the accident of Mrs May’s 2017 election mishap, pushing the DUP into an entirely unwarranted position of power. (Note that attempts by a number of parties to get SF to take their Westminster seats to counteract this failed.) The current mess is the embodiment of Johnson’s lie – that the detail of the Treaties didn’t matter in the face of the Tory majority of 2019. Well it is easier to make a vaccine against COVID than it is to renegotiate that tangle when your negotiating technique is based not on understanding the opposing view and finding a different mutual position but wilfully misunderstanding and misrepresenting it. The DUP goes along with that, in line with many other malevolent positions that it inhabits, as it always has done.

    1. I don’t disagree with much of what you have written. But,we are were we are.

      NI was always going to be secondary to Brexit – Barnier and Selmayer knew this too.

      Edna Kenny & his government knew the nuances/subtleties of NI/RoI relations and generally took a pragmatic approach to technology & practical customs solutions.

      Varadkar, young man in a hurry to curry favour with Brussels had different ideas

      Brexit can’t and will never be undone for another 50/60 years.
      The EU – I doff my cap – like it or not, they have joined the RoI/NI/UK/EU security quagmire ? The big question – was it worth it?

  22. Lit a blue touchpaper there! Well it has given them exactly the opposite of what they wanted, so that is a good thing. The sooner the UK is rid of this monstrous enclave, and it is joined back to Ireland where it belongs, the better.

  23. Nodding in agreement to your Blog and to the comments.
    FWIW l’m going to chuck into the ring blind loyalty to the British Government but especially the Conservative Party.
    The very existence of the DUP depends upon this almost non questioning alliance to Queen and Country. What we see and hear publicly is the tip of the ice berg and who knows what is promised and negotiated in very hush hush communications groups and private Gmails between the Westminster Government and it’s allies. Where the Tories go, the DUP follow because in NI identity Politics is everything and even with Brexit this ultimately wasn’t going to change, even if Johnson temporarily chucked them under that bus.

  24. To be fair to Michel Barnier ( and erstwhile sidekick Martin Selmayer) they knew they were playing with fire having ‘ bigged-up’ the RoI/NI land border and ‘fooling’ some, not all, in the unionist community to buy into the North Sea border.

    Then, reality hit – the hard loyalists didn’t quite like being seen as 2nd hand rose UK citizens especially when it was let slip that 20%0of all EU border inspections were happening in good ‘ol UK.

    Frosty, the most tactless politician in the business has already given the UK game away – I’d expect the can to stay kicked down the road for the extra 3 months – then there will, sadly, be another Irish martyr for whichever side who decides to recuse him/herself via violent means and oh dear, it’s back to a hard border in its rightful place – the boundary between RoI /NI.

    I don’t think this was necessarily wanted but it was inevitable with Brexit – Moreover, Barnier took a risky punt and failed.

    Maybe the EU/Irish can agree a derogation with the WTO & WCO on having an extremely light, regulatory border away from the geographic border ?

    Finally, the idea that Belfast could/would take regulatory orders from Brussels , was always for the fairies.

  25. The Free Presbyterian Church and the Democratic Unionist Party were both founded by Ian Paisley, and both were led by him for over half a century.

    The Church has a membership of perhaps 15,000 but has a wholly disproportionate influence in politics (and possibly the civil service). The DUP has a paid-up membership of a few hundred.

    It’s hard much of the time to separate the Church’s theology from the DUP’s politics. Not all are biblical literalists or creationists, but these concepts also exert significant influence.

  26. May I suggest an explanation of why the DUP and unionist in general supported Brexit even though a majority of the NI electorate opposed it.
    Northern Ireland for the unionists is based on a belief not a political agenda. It is based, contrary to reality, on a belief that Northern Ireland is British. Some unionists call it Ulster though it is but six counties of Ulster. No one on the island of Great Britain thinks of Northern Ireland as anything other than Irish, “our” part of Ireland for some.
    100 years ago when Northern Ireland was carved out of the 32 counties, that was the founding myth was invented. Northern Ireland is a part of the UK, but it is not part of Great Britain. If you are a unionists that is too loose a connection. The myth is NI is an organic part of Great Britain. It takes all the will in the world to live in a myth.
    Thus, Brexit is a signifier that Northern Irish unionists are truly British and they can prove it with full volume support for the great British adventure – taking back control.
    Although the yanks refer to the descendants Ulster protestants as the Scoth-Irish and, indeed, the fundamentalist Bob Jones University of South Carolina honoured Ian Paisley with and honorary doctorate and called him a friend, the scotch part of that is only an historical memory.
    In and 1921 and 1922, indirection was the order of the day. The Irish Free State did not import Westminster directly into its constitution saying in Article 51 that the “Executive Authority of the Irish Free State …shall be exercisable … in accordance with the law, practise, and constitutional usage governing Executive Authority … of the Dominion of Canada. ” Canada had imported Westminster in the 1867 BNA Act now the 1867 Canada Act.
    So the South was distancing from the UK (the G-G of the Free State was to be compensated in like amount to the G-G of Australia.
    For the South it was a way to avoid reference to the UK.
    For the North, the myth was a way to encapsulate Britishness.

  27. Drunk on the mere sniff of power and with undue belief in their own capacity to fix things, might have it. But even so, it is a head shaker.
    Again: all career politicians should be fired; only those whose shins have been barked on their own mistakes, who have already been buffeted by the winds of change and been drenched by showers of disappointment should apply.

  28. As an Irishman living in England l have found internally many British people, particularly at the extremes of politics, make a distinction between citizen and subject. Everyone is a subject of UK but only some citizens. You see this in the way the English right (including Tory MPs) speak about Northern Ireland, or even sometimes Scotland and Wales when they have the temerity to exercise their rights under devolution.

    Amongst the right of Northern Ireland, which is exclusively represented by the DUP, I imagine there was a similar distinction in their minds between citizen and subject. Nationalist, liberals, remainers and the rest of the ungodly metropolitan elite were simply subjects and Brexit would give citizens the power to once again put them in their place, as it had in the “good old days” of sectarian discrimination.

    The idea that proud sovereign DUP citizens might be constrained by law was antithetical to a group who expects to be able to bend the law of their will and against those, who — being subjects but not citizens — should not have any protection of the law at all.

  29. Spot on.
    Arlene Foster seemed to have got carried away with her unexpected power over May. But she and DUP were woefully unsuited for the national stage and inexplicably she failed to grasp the implications of Boris even after the GE consigned her to irrelevance in the Commons.
    But then again, a significant number of voters in England believed the promises of a problem free exit too…..

    1. Love it – trouble is £1bn was never enough to turn around the ‘elephant in the room’ which was Brexit – the moment that genie got out of its bottle the border could only be in 1 of 2 places – 1. the geographic border 2. the North Sea

      Barnier knew this only too well – putting it in the North Sea made it the UKs problem for a while.

      It would be nice and grown up to think that the next 3 months ( and counting down) could be used to find a compromise solution. Real politik suggests that UK/EU will likely play hardball with a view to very big ructions in September.

          1. Though given the lack of knowledge of geography, trade routes and the relationship between GB and NI (and indeed between GB and Ireland in general) that became evident over the last five years, I confess I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that someone had proposed the border be in the North Sea.

  30. To add to the many excellent comments above, there is also the DUP’s deep dislike of social progress, some of which is promoted by the EC and EP. The rapid changes on this front in the Republic, include the high profile repeal of the 8th amendment will have added to the DUP’s certainty that evil resides in the Republic and hard border is the best way of insulating their flock from Dublin and Brussels liberal influence.

  31. I think their stance probably comes from the “confidence and supply” agreement after the 2017 election and the Billion pound “magic money tree”. It would be difficult to support Theresa May’s Brexit plans for er, “idiological” reasons, then oppose Brexit when Johnson took power.

      1. Whilst it’s true that in 2016 the DUP described itself as “Eurosceptic” – Foster said that members should decide from themselves which way to vote. Parties didn’t expel members for taking an opposite stance (eg Frank Field and Kate Hoey for Labour, Ken Clarke,Sajid Javid for the Tories, etc).

        My point is the the 2017 agreement codified the DUPs Brexit stance, and really left them no wriggle-room. They believed the lie that Brexit could be done and it would strengthen the union. You can’t look at the current turmoil in the DUP and not blame that at least in part on their Brexit position. I think it’s current an “oops” moment for the DUP as they are now realising what they signed up to. I don’t know if Donaldson will last any longer than Poots, but even he is now claiming that the Brexit Protocol hindering economic opportunities for NI.

  32. The DUP’s anti-EU stance goes back to before the 1975 referendum. A poster, actually from the Free Presbyterian Church, from that time, says that a vote for the Common Market is a vote for:

    1. Ecumenism
    2. Rome
    3. Dictatorship
    4. Antichrist

    They haven’t changed much since then. (The poster is on Google images.)

  33. Northern Irish politics is visceral (in its true sense). It is bigoted and corrupt. Don’t expect an appeal to the intellect or to logic to have any appeal to most Northern Irish political parties (with limited honourable exceptions – but sadly those exceptions do not have many (or any) MPs).

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