Henry McDonald: No Stormont return as DUP refuses to play its only card

Back in 2020, DUP negotiators at the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ talks raised the spectre of a protocol that could slowly eject Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom.

An anti-protocol poster pictured at the Port of Larne earlier this year. Unionists are vociferously opposed to the Protocol, claiming it has undermined the Province's place within the UK
An anti-protocol poster pictured at the Port of Larne earlier this year. Unionists are vociferously opposed to the Protocol, claiming it has undermined the Province's place within the UK

They sought assurances from Boris Johnson’s government that the Province would not be forced out of the UK’s internal market due to the post-Brexit trade agreement.

The DUP team received a written note telling them that this would not happen, which from the hindsight of two years later looks as cast iron as the one scribbled by Adolf Hitler to Neville Chamberlain at Munich promising peace in our time.

Of course it is ludicrous to stretch out the parallel between a epoch-changing event like those talks in the Bavarian capital in 1938 to negotiations aimed at establishing a regional parliament in one of the nations of the UK in the 21st century.

News Letter political editor Henry McDonald says that DUP fears the Protocol bill will be diluted meant there was never going to be an automatic DUP return to Stormont straight off the back of the bill’s publication

But the experience of ‘New Decade, New Approach’, and in particular those promises that the protocol would not detach NI from GB economically, are seared in the party’s collective memory.

It is a case if you like of once Boris bitten twice shy for the DUP in their attitude to the government’s protocol-changing bill announced by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss yesterday.

As well as past experience there is another P word that is motivating the DUP’s reticence to jump back into a new Stormont Executive now that the legislation aimed at radically changing the protocol has finally been published – pressure.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and those around him believe that pressure via the refusal to nominate a speaker and create a new Executive has worked for them.

As one DUP source said yesterday just before the Truss bill came forward: “We have one card and that is to say if and when we go back into power-sharing government. Why would we throw away that card now when we need to ensure the bill gets through?”

DUP fears that the bill will be diluted, amendments to it accepted by a fragile Johnson-led administration or even defeated in the House of Commons, means there was never going to be an automatic DUP return to devolved government straight off the back of the bill’s publication.

The party will watch and wait as the legislation goes through its various stages at Westminster before becoming law no matter how many times the pro-protocol parties try to recall the Assembly and re-elect a speaker.

There are some in government – reportedly Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove among them – who would prefer a renegotiated deal with the EU rather than the prime minister eventually using the legislation to unilaterally bring in the changes promised in the bill.

Their hopes of that happening were dashed as early as last night when vice-president of the European Commission Maros Sefcovic issued a stern warning to London.

He said: “Renegotiating the protocol is unrealistic. No workable alternative solution has been found to this delicate, long-negotiated balance. Any renegotiation would simply bring further legal uncertainty for people and businesses in Northern Ireland. For these reasons, the European Union will not renegotiate the p rotocol.”

The stage is set, the battle is about to commence.

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