Brexit: If you're not at the table, you might end up on the menu

06 December 2017 - by Quintin Oliver

DUP leader Arlene Foster has voiced a desire for the party to be more involved in Brexit talks. There is a case to be made for that stance.

In negotiation theory, we have a term – ‘boycott’ – that underlines the importance of direct contact with the decision-makers on your issue; it also helps manage the thorny question on when, if ever, to press the nuclear button.

For a long time Sinn Féin has demonstrated the efficacy of the walkout tactic – based on the assumption, usually correct – that it is strong enough to resist being gobbled up by those remaining inside. We need only recall the Prior Assembly, the 1996 Forum, or, more recently, the current talks process.

Similarly, back in 1998, the DUP successfully deployed the boycott option in the post-Agreement Assembly, taking Ministerial roles, but not Executive seats.

Jumping across the world, the Syrian Opposition has felt obliged to attend all the Geneva talks and, latterly, those hosted by Russia in Astana, lest they be sidelined and carved out of the eventual settlement.

In this week’s Brexit drama, it is arguable that the DUP’s absence from the table did not save it from featuring on the menu. According to party leader Arlene Foster, the UK Government alleged that its Irish counterpart had insisted on key drafts being withheld from the DUP. Notably the UK Government is said to have complied.

It does have a case, at least, to be closer to the table on the twin grounds that it enjoys a binding ‘supply and confidence’ agreement with the ruling party of UK Government – specifically referring to Brexit– and represents (albeit partially) the only part of that UK with a complicated land border.

Now, the case would be stronger if it was in joint government with Sinn Féin, but that, ironically, would instantly nullify its voice, given the latter’s polar opposite position on the border.

So, does it matter? Yes, of course, for all our futures… which is where the business, trade union and civic voices must now be heard.

We have another theory of peace-building negotiations: ‘Without public participation, any deal will be fragile’. That’s why we all need to be closer to the table, lest our tiny numerical strength (Northern Ireland as 3 per cent of the UK; Ireland as 1 per cent of the EU 27) be swept aside along with our huge, tangible, significant economic and political interests.