Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds, Leader and Deputy Leader of the DUP.

The phrase “Brexit leadership” may seem to many to be both oxymoronic and moronic…
We don’t normally talk much about political personalities and leadership on this blog, preferring to analyse events in terms of economic, social and political processes. But one of the most striking features of the Brexit debacle is the incredibly poor leadership the UK establishment have shown on the issue from David Cameron onwards. What other major European power would have clowns such as Boris Johnson, David Davis, Liam Fox, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees Mogg, or Nigel Farage in elected or high office?

I don’t agree with their neo-liberal economics which has condemned a generation to housing and healthcare shortages, but Leo Varadker and Simon Coveney have been masters of the political process by comparison. Barnier has done a remarkable job, and even Juncker has been made to look competent by comparison to his UK tormentors. But what prompts this observation is that Theresa May, for all her many faults, is belatedly showing signs of leadership in stark contrast to her earlier role as hapless messenger girl.

No one can doubt the enormity of her task in converting Brexiteer delusions into an actual agreement, no matter how flawed from everyone’s point of view. She had a mandate to negotiate a Brexit agreement, and saw that through even if there were many miss-steps along the way. Now she has an even greater task to persuade the House of Commons to vote for her deal and seems to be about to take her case directly to the people of the country, over the heads of the House of Commons, in a general election style campaign.

Whether this campaign ends up being successful, or leads to an actual general election or second referendum, no one can yet tell. But it will certainly put the wind up both Brexiteer and Remainer MPs who would rather not face the people again just now. Cleverly, she is keeping all her options open in the event of losing a vote in the Commons – resignation, general election, a second referendum, or no deal – putting the fear of God into Brexiteers that they could lose Brexit altogether, and into Remainers that no deal is the default alternative.

If it were down to just the British people her strategy of encouraging unity and an end to divisive debate might just succeed, if only because many people are utterly fed up with Brexit and squabbling politicians and just want to “get on with it”. But I fear she may not have reckoned with just how obtuse her DUP “allies” can be. Divisiveness and obnoxious contrariness are their bread and butter. They are also impervious to how political sentiment may be changing “on the mainland,” and concerned solely with their survival as the leading force in unionism in N. Ireland.

If the DUP lose this Brexit battle, their credibility in N. Ireland will be shot. The Unionist vote could fragment between them and the Ulster Unionist party and various splinter groups allowing Sinn Fein candidates to capture a plurality of the  vote and the seat in even unionist majority constituencies. Nothing could be a greater nightmare for the staunch loyalist vanguard. Right now they are still in the fight and could probably hold onto their core vote, but if May’s deal wins out they are in for a day of reckoning. It was they who brought Brexit into N. Ireland against the wishes of the vast majority of the people and put a united Ireland back on the political agenda.

In any normal democracy, the recent transgressions of the DUP leadership would have disqualified them from public office. They used dark money to help fund the Brexit campaign in Britain, they oversaw the Renewable Heat Initiative which used hundreds of millions of taxpayer funds to encourage energy wastage in N. Ireland, they have been unable to form a government/Executive in N. Ireland for almost two years and have done what they could to undermine the Good Friday Agreement and cross-community relations in N. Ireland. Not much change then, from the early days of their founder, Ian Paisley.

But it may well be down to them whether Brexit happens and on what form it will take. It must be very rare in history that the fate of a great nation depends on such a poor bunch of leaders.

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