If Edwin Poots tried to crash the Assembly it would open the door to a border poll

Let’s assume Edwin Poots is a shoo-in for the DUP leadership. Comfortable in his minor elder statesman role at Westminster, Jeffrey Donaldson hasn’t the stomach for a contest. He might be willing to accept  it on a plate but that’s not going to happen.

With more than a hint of desperation, some of us have been foisting the Nixon goes to China model onto Poots, meaning that the hardliner in politics may be better placed to compromise than the liberal. It’s easy to forget however that the hardliner in Nixon was an essential element of his diplomacy..He boasted to Henry Kissinger that  the Commies were willing to business with him because they feared he might go mad and press the nuclear button.

Nixon’s   “madness” has no equivalent in Poots . His creationism is a red herring.  He will go through the motions of raising the spectre of a Sinn Fein First Minister after the next Assembly election but he knows that the DUP does not have the magic bullet to stop it.

Much comment suggests a lurch to the right would be futile. I’m not so sure. It depends on what sort of lurch and a lurch within limits.  What deserves attention is that rioting that would have won a few sentences in news bulletins at the height of the Troubles and now supplemented  by the fall of Foster, are concentrating  minds  that hitherto have been complacent with the rectitude if their defence of the  Protocol. Those “minds”  (mine included I admit)  either kept lecturing the  DUP to face reality ( and annoying the hell out of  Peter Robinson by the way) or pitying them for being unable to do so. But that is poor politics.  Behind the intransigence lies at least one solvable problem. As Prof Pete Shirlow wrote in the Guardian:

Everyone knows the protocol is law, but more importantly there must be an appreciation that how it is implemented is pivotal to whether we can have better future outcomes, or things get even worse.

The EU must understand several things. First, protecting the single market must be proportionate given Northern Ireland’s location and economic size. Europe simply has to be more trusting regarding goods at risk. Second, in seeking protection of the single market it must be aware of potentially disastrous societal consequences. Finally, avoiding escalation in tensions in Northern Ireland will depend on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland being as frictionless as possible.

Although there are provisions via the UK-EU joint committee to examine problems with the protocol, there is no obvious framework through which the Northern Ireland executive has direct influence. But the executive must work with existing mechanisms to have its voice heard. For that to happen, the political mood has to change.

Exploiting chaos might otherwise be called  adopting the Sinn Fein strategy. But it would come at the cost of the moral hazard  that always accompanies  violence of any kind;  the loss of control on events.  But short term  dark threats of  future violence  – nothing  do with us you understand –  are always  tempting. They impress  the gullible abroad more than the case hardened at home.

Although Poots’ adversaries – and he probably thinks of them like that-    in London,  Dublin and Brussels are clearly worried,  their response hasn’t gelled    yet, according to the soul searching going on in the Irish Times.

Rory Montgomery, a former Irish ambassador to the EU, an honorary professor at Queen’s University Belfast says.. It is not possible for unionists to reverse the protocol. “Opposing it as a constitutional principle puts them in a very difficult position and I don’t see how they can, quickly at any rate, reverse out of that position.”

Turning to the North-South dynamic, he is blunt: “You have to be afraid. We have had this unclear DUP policy of boycotting North-South meetings because of the protocol.”

That cannot continue indefinitely, he says. “I don’t think Sinn Féin will tolerate a situation where there is a wholesale extended boycott of the North-South institutions.”

 Let’s unpick those two elements. First on the Protocol . More than Boris Johnson’s  absurd characterisation of “ sandpapering” is going on as the FT keeps reporting.

Trade groups have told the FT that, despite Johnson’s rhetoric, UK government officials are stepping up their efforts to implement the NI protocol — part of the 2019 Brexit divorce deal which requires all goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain to comply with EU customs rules. “Whitehall is throwing the kitchen sink at this thing,” said Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing Northern Ireland. “I cannot remember ever seeing this level of engagement from right across the UK government. Officials are working their rear ends off to try and make it work.”

But there is much more to do.

However, Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, said there is a real limit to how much checks can be mitigated given the complex and high-speed nature of modern food and hospitality sector supply chains. “Ministers seem to be pinning their hopes on creating a hideously expensive, digital superstructure that firefights the most immediate and visible problems, but they are not necessarily seeing how this will solidify inflexibilities and leave Northern Ireland consumers at a permanent disadvantage,” he said.

 Peter Hardwick, trade policy adviser for the British Meat Processors Association, agreed. He echoed the widespread industry view that the only real ‘fix’ will be for the UK to agree closer alignment to EU rules governing food and plant products. “Technology will not be able to sandpaper these things away. They can smooth things out a bit, but it doesn’t fix the problem, because the reality now is that a GB cow doesn’t have the same health status as a cow in NI.”

I think Montgomery is wrong. If – a cautious “if” –  new Protocol arrangements can be made, the moral high ground of grievance against the Protocol ( the DUPs responsibility for creating it notwithstanding ) will have been surrendered.  The demand to scrap it is no more than a classic piece of over bidding from a weak position, essentially a cry for help.   In response, all the Stormont parties should come together in their  own Brexit committee  to demand formal representation on the special and joint committees  to implement the protocol. It is hard to see how this could be resisted. But of course they would have to agree a common approach. If they managed it , it  would take the sting out of the plausible charge that decisions are being taken on NI  by the EU with major Dublin input  over their heads

And on Sinn Fein?

Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy writes below the headline, The DUP can see the future, but cannot face it. 

He is part of the growing  tendency in the south that is prepared to adopt unionist frustrations  as their own rather than dismiss them. That could be quite an undertaking.

 In the North, the Sinn Féin narrative is both blunter and long in the ascendant. Its success, home and abroad, is driving the DUP to public distraction…

Anyone wondering if Mary Lou McDonald was really trying to apologise to the British royal family for the murder of Lord Louis Mountbatten should watch it. Anyone wondering why senior Sinn Féin politicians flouted Covid-19 restrictions by holding a funeral rally for IRA enforcer Bobby Storey should watch it.

 “Seamus took the war to the British . . . At one time, soldiers operating along the Border were so afraid of him that they carried a picture of Seamus on the butt of their rifles . . . He was the most feared volunteer of the last 30 years in the south Fermanagh region.”

 The voiceover begins: “Seamus McElwain . . . was born in an area steeped in resistance to British rule in Ireland . . Describing McElwain as an “intelligent, humorous, engaging young man” widely held in “huge esteem”, the local Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy presented the final section of last week’s video tribute. “The delivery of the Republic is within our grasp,” he proclaimed…

The contrast with McDonald’s conciliatory noises after the death of Prince Philip is a stark one. But Sinn Féin’s constant recalibrating of language, its conflation of the struggle for independence across 100 years with the Provisional IRA’s “armed struggle” in the North, its efforts to frame questions about the IRA campaign as part of an establishment obsession with the past – these are part of a conscious and careful political strategy in the South. But there are more than two audiences on the island. There is another audience in the North: the audience against whom McElwain’s operations were directed.

McElwain, we can assume, is not held in “great esteem” by it. It includes Arlene Foster who believes he was part of the IRA unit that tried to kill her father, a part-time RUC reservist. He was shot in the head, but survived. It includes the protestants and unionists of the Fermanagh Border areas, manyof whom believe that the IRA engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing in their area.

 The Dublin parties in government can keep banging away at  Sinn Fein’s position  while the North awaits the independent review of the decision not to prosecute over the Storey funeral.   IRA glorification may be fantastically annoying  but is it a good reason – or even a good excuse –   to “ crash the Assembly?”  They’d look worse than Sinn Fein in 2017.and kamikaze to their own electorate.

What does Poots want?  Protocol mitigation certainly, essentially endorsed by NI business. But there is little else of substance available

The UK government’s commitment  to implement  its  law on abortion  including for fatal fetal abnormality appears constitutionally unamendable. Politically it fires a shot across the DUP’s bows to accept Westminster’s sovereignty and work in the Assembly as the price of Conservative support for the constitutional position. Too much can be made of UK indifference. They may be unenthusiastic about close British- Irish relations but they draw the line at abandoning power sharing. They would greatly resent a DUP boycott and have already pointed out that it would strengthen demands for a border poll. A secretary of state might feel disposed to grant it in preference to years of further wrangling. This is still an implied threat but potentially a very big one indeed.  Poots cannot afford to call Johnson’s bluff with a boycott of Stormont.

What could Poot’s refuse? Continuing to withholding  an Irish Language Act would provoke an Assembly crisis.  Westminster is hinting at passing the legislation agreed in New Decade, New Agreement to extend the period of negotiation  from a fortnight to six weeks before an election is called . Theoretically if the Assembly had not passed a resolution to dissolve itself it could remain  in shadow form for the best part of a year.  But it could not survive a major party withdrawal.   Yet it’s hard to see how either a snap election or long drawn out negotiations could benefit the DUP. For a start, what candidly is there left to negotiate?

Peter Robinson has issued double facing warnings over the past couple of weeks; first to Sinn Fein not to push it.

We are perilously close to a line which, when crossed, will lock us all into a pattern all too familiar to my generation

There are forces using the exigencies of Brexit to advance a programme of constitutional change through stealth and propaganda.

My advice to those who are driving this agenda forward is as short as it is restrained. Take care.

And to his own side

How can we widen the net to attract others to grow the ranks of unionism? This week after Arlene Fosters’ resignation..

How best do we speak to those who place a premium on bread-and- butter politics and have no recollection of the conflict which blighted my generation?

How can we, in a post Brexit era, deal with the need to safeguard our constitutional and economic wellbeing but at the same time deal with the conundrum created by having a land border with an EU member state?

Importantly, how best can we interact and work with those who do not share our world view on so many issues and who cannot even whisper the name of the country they jointly govern?

This is wise barely coded advice against a scorched earth policy.

Other parties  have major roles in maintaining stability. But they could face a major headaches.   What will the SDLP and the Alliance parties put in their  Assembly manifestos next year  about a border poll?

The big message is that for all the fact that they are still just about the largest party, the DUP lack the ability to force others to bend to their will.  For too long they have declined to accept the logic of power sharing in  favour of assuming a  public  unionist superiority that went long ago. In truth this has been a pretence that the public saw through for as long and lies at their heart of their present lack of credibility. To deceive  others is bad enough ; to deceive yourself is disastrous.  To survive the DUP have to compromise and in compromising to accept that historically the political pressure was bound to fall on majority unionism. Their failure realise  this led them greatly to  exaggerate Sinn Fein ability to take political tricks. But it is a low game that places a premium on cunning over wisdom.

The best hope for the future  is that now that no clear majority exists the politics of trade off or deadlock  on identity issues is coming to an end. The legacy is the major outstanding matter.  Perhaps the hardest pill to swallow is that the history of defending the state against terrorism does not give them a political advantage in the era of uneasy peace. Settled contentment is achieved by making common cause. Jesus would surely agree.



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