by Jon Tonge, Professor of Politics 

After yet another dramatic, if again inconclusive, week at Westminster, DUP policy – Brexit without a Backstop – is also now apparently official UK government policy. Last week’s parliamentary vote demanding the backstop be amended or removed represented a coup of sorts for Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds. The Prime Minister, having signed a deal and told everyone that “No Backstop equalled No Deal” now heads to Brussels to seek a deal without a backstop. Good luck with that PM. 
The DUP has form for denouncing agreements, achieving changes and working the rest of the original deal. The St Andrews Agreement changed the supposedly “unchangeable” Good Friday Agreement in two respects – how the First and Deputy First Ministers were put in place and on Sinn Féin’s support for policing. So deals can be altered – but those changes in 2006-7 did not require agreement across 27 states. The DUP’s 2017 General Election manifesto stated that the UK was right to leave the EU because the institution was so inflexible in negotiations, citing David Cameron’s failed pre-referendum efforts. What evidence is there that the EU might miraculously soften its tough negotiating approach for divorce dealings?
That said, the DUP’s backstop concerns are genuine. A political party offers a political reading of a document, one not reducible to economics. Equally, businesses put the economics before the politics, hence their favourable reception for the EU’s plan. The Withdrawal Agreement indicates there will be checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and that Northern Ireland will remain much more closely aligned to the EU Single Market than the rest of GB. It was always implausible, as a unionist party, that the DUP would welcome such developments.  The UUP also opposes the backstop. It is nonsense to suggest the backstop will never be used. Barring a customs technology miracle, avoidance of the backstop requires the conclusion of a comprehensive trade deal between the EU and UK by December 31, 2020. Scant chance. From a nationalist perspective, of course Sinn Féin and the SDLP are going to welcome a backstop which places Northern Ireland closer to the Irish Republic and EU economically, with likely political spillover. If the backstop works and the North prospers through such alignment, Irish nationalism is strengthened and unionist economic objections to Irish unity will be diminished. 
So it’s not a question of political parties or businesses being ‘wrong’ about the backstop. Viewed through their own partisan political or economic prism, what they say may be very different but in terms of their political outlook, each makes sense. That said, there hasn’t been a credible economic forecast yet suggesting Northern Ireland will be better off outside the EU – and a no deal Brexit will make things even worse. Even in the unlikely event that cross-Border trade could continue largely unimpaired, the current level of EU subsidies will not, in the long-term, be matched by the UK Treasury.
Whether the UK leaves the EU before March 29 is looking increasingly doubtful. Meanwhile, the DUP’s thoughts are also turning to its domestic flank. Local Council elections take place on May 2 and all parties are busy putting candidates in place. Given that Stormont isn’t coming back any time soon, local councils are all that’s left in terms of a local power base. So these elections matter. The concern for the DUP is that the RHI inquiry report will be released shortly before the contests. Only a fool would second-guess what Sir Patrick Coghlin and his team will conclude but the report is unlikely to praise the DUP’s handling of the episode to the skies. A scattergun approach to the blame-game, spreading opprobrium across the civil service, special advisers, ministers and Assembly committee ministers, might help the DUP leader avoid too much concentration upon her role. Even allowing that RHI was a ‘biggie’, the DUP has ridden out numerous storms before. Elections supposedly about the party’s conduct in office – for example the 2017 Assembly – have seen them comfortably hold their share of the unionist vote.
Council elections are a free hit for the unionist electorate though. They are not risking electing a Sinn Féin First Minister by splitting the unionist vote. This allows the possibility of vote-switching to the UUP, for whom this election is surely make-or-break? With 88 council seats, the UUP is not that far behind the DUP’s 130. Failure to make gains this time will surely add to the pressure for a merger of unionist forces. This would not come from within, with 85 per cent of UUP members opposing fusion with the DUP. But UUP leader Robin Swann knows he has to start reviving fortunes soon – and this is his best opportunity. Whether we are talking Brookeborough or Brussels, plenty of political drama awaits.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of recent books on the DUP and UUP.