Whilst Joe Biden’s ham-fisted intervention in the debate over the Protocol has stolen the headlines, the ramifications of the sea border for Northern Irish politics – and particularly Unionist politics – are still working themselves out.
The Democratic Unionists are in an invidious position. They need to simultaneously try and keep the Province’s ever-fragile institutions on the road, whilst also staunching a loss of support to the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) over the Protocol.
Edwin Poots, their new leader, seems to have adopted a double-headed strategy by declining to become First Minister. Instead he is taking a tough line, calling on the Government to ‘unilaterally protect Northern Ireland’ in the event that Brussels won’t make the necessary concessions.
This could free up Paul Givan, the party’s candidate for the First Minister’s office, to strike a tone closer to that of Paul Frew, the new Economy Minister, whom the Belfast Telegraph reports talking up the DUP’s willingness to overlook Sinn Fein’s IRA links and lockdown breaches for the sake of governing.
Whether or not this will work remains to be seen. Sinn Fein have already threatened to block Givan’s appointment unless Poots offers a “cast iron” guarantee of an Irish Language Act. This immediately highlights how the new First Minister’s fate will not rest in his own hands. This impression is only bolstered by his CV: Givan started out as a part-time assistant in Poots’ constituency office, and later served him as a special adviser.
For his part, Brandon Lewis has criticised the new double-headed arrangement. Speaking to the News Letter, the Secretary of State pointed out that all the official structures for consulting between London and Belfast focused on devolved office-holders, not behind-the-scenes party leaders.
Nor is it obvious that Poots’ grip on the DUP is as secure as it might be. He has moved to secure his position with a dramatic purge of Arlene Foster’s top team. Whilst this has presumably produced a new one more loyal to himself, senior figures left outside the tent have attacked his failure to reach out. Taken alongside Jeffrey Donaldson’s claim that the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) threatened his leadership campaign, and it doesn’t seem entirely beyond the realm of possibility that the DUP might split.
If the Conservative Party is as serious as it sometimes says it is about making Ulster’s position in the Union work, it ought to be giving serious consideration to whether a potential split could give it another opportunity to try and offer a better alternative to the Province’s pro-UK voters. There will be understandable reluctance following the failure of the party’s alliance with the Ulster Unionists in 2010, but it ought to be a central feature of Tory unionism that British citizens in Northern Ireland deserve equal citizenship and a chance to vote for the parties of government.
Notwithstanding that, there is also a serious danger that if the party can’t secure its position as unionism’s dominant party, the split vote at the next Stormont election might leave Sinn Fein the largest party. Doubtless there is a wing of the DUP that would be prepared to install Michelle O’Neill as First Minister for the sake of getting to be ministers, but such a move would risk another backlash from unionist voters already angry over the Protocol.
If there are enough of them, the unionist parties might refuse to form an Executive – and unlike previous collapses, which were largely about getting Westminster to make hard decisions or stump up more money, this time it might not come back. Is Lewis prepared to do what his predecessors would not, and actually govern Northern Ireland?