By the end of next week, power-sharing might be the only game in town – it probably always was, writes Eilis O’Hanlon
The DUP once fought an election under the slogan “Smash Sinn Fein”.
For good or bad, campaign mottos tend to be more wishy-washy these days. “Let’s get Northern Ireland moving again” is what the party has plumped for this time round.
It sounds like an ad for castor oil.
Alliance has gone for “Demand Better”. Demanding better slogans from local politicians would definitely be a good start.
Even by these lowly standards, the Tory slogan for tomorrow’s general election – “Get Brexit Done” – has to be one of the most irritating ever, not least because Boris Johnson has repeated it so often.
The Prime Minister was even asked a few days ago what he was getting his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, for Christmas. “I’m going to get Brexit done,” was his less-than-festive reply.
Yesterday, he went one better (or should that be worse?) by driving a digger with the words “Get Brexit Done” on the front through a brick wall marked “Gridlock”.
It will be a relief come Friday, when, whoever wins, the slogan is binned for good.
“Get Brexit Done” did pass one crucial test, though.
It stuck in people’s heads, like the infuriatingly catchy chorus of a Christmas song.
It also held out an enticing promise to millions of voters who are weary of the whole saga and just want it to be over.
Getting Brexit done, whatever that means in practice, would be in everyone’s interests.
Remainers could finally stop fighting a three-year-old battle. Labour would be spared from making more impossible choices about which side to back.
Whisper it, but it might even be the best thing for Northern Ireland, too.
If the country wakes up in two days’ time to find that Boris Johnson has a working majority, unionists will be alarmed at first, because it will mean the passage of a Brexit deal which they loathe, and that increasingly angry loyalists have pledged to overturn, but, underneath, there will surely be secret relief.
Ever since the referendum, Brexit has paralysed politics in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein immediately saw an opportunity to push for a border poll, collapsing Stormont within months on the convenient pretext of “cash-for-ash” and turning all attention to Dublin, whose government was so hostile to Brexit that it was prepared to play footsie with republicans to spite the Brits.
Unionists were likewise fooled into thinking that, because they came out of the 2017 election holding the balance of power, they had the Tories where they wanted them and could safely leave Stormont on ice.
The DUP is now gnashing its teeth about being betrayed, but that’s just politics.
They had Theresa May over a barrel, only to lose the advantage once Boris took over.
Skilled politicians play their cards as each new hand is dealt. They don’t keep harking back to the hand they held two years ago.
Knowing that Brexit is finally out of their control might concentrate minds in Sinn Fein and the DUP, increasing the prospects of a return to Stormont, where the rival parties do have the power to get Northern Ireland moving again.
Unionists won’t be thrilled at the prospect of checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland, but what did they expect to happen? The EU was bound to insist on mechanisms to protect the single market during any transition period.
Unionists’ best hope is for Boris to win and for negotiations in Brussels to be concluded speedily, with a comprehensive free trade agreement between the UK and EU, thereby eliminating the need for future checks.
There are only two other alternatives. One is another hung parliament in which the DUP can hold the Tories’ feet to the fire, forcing them to keep the whole of the UK in the customs union.
If the result of that is a Brexit so soft that no Brexiteer would consider it to be Brexit at all, then the political consequences could be grave.
Conservatives may have a sentimental affection for Ulster in the abstract, but their desire to leave the EU is much stronger, as polls consistently show, and it would be a reckless gamble to ask allies across the Irish Sea to make that binary choice.
The other is for Jeremy Corbyn to take office as leader of a pro-Remain coalition and stop Brexit altogether.
If unionists really believe it will be to their benefit to have as Prime Minister a man who’s spent his political life running the Sinn Fein Appreciation Society at Westminster, then they have lost their minds.
As patriotic Britishers, the DUP should be willing even now to lie back and think of Blighty. Instead, they have chosen their hill to die on and it seems to be that Northern Ireland must not be treated differently to the rest of the UK, despite the fact that it is different by virtue of having a land border with the EU after Brexit.
Ostriches in the DUP may have chosen to ignore that inconvenient truth before, but it’s not as if they weren’t warned. Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald is wrong about most things, but she was right on BBC radio to say that the DUP should have foreseen these problems from the start.
Some of the risks have been exaggerated. The number of existing checks on goods coming in from outside the EU is miniscule, as the Revenue Commissioners in Dublin have previously pointed out. They ought to be manageable without threatening the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.
If it’s going to happen anyway, accepting it and working together to minimise the inconvenience for local business is a better way forward than throwing a collective strop.
Talk of cross-unionist unity to kill Boris’s deal is pie in the sky. The numbers are either there for him, or they’re not. The rest is white noise.
A solid majority for Johnson on Friday would at least provide a much-needed reality check.
The last three years have been a distraction and it’s patients in local hospitals and the victims of historic wrongs who’ve been forced to bear the brunt of this self-indulgence.
Instead of fruitlessly trying to rig the outcome in London, the DUP and Sinn Fein can get back to doing what’s actually within their power to accomplish here in Northern Ireland.
Whatever happens tomorrow, the parties that will be starting talks next Monday should take a leaf from Boris’s playbook and just “Get Devolution Done”.
They’ll likely make another mess of it in due course, but what other choice do they have?
It could, by the end of the week, be the only game of town.
The tragedy is that it probably always was.