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At the end of last month, our Editor noted that the Democratic Unionist Party’s threat to suspend checks on the Irish Sea border had set a time-bomb ticking under Liz Truss’s negotiations over the Protocol.

Since then that bomb has gone off early, and proved bigger than anticipated. Jeffrey Donaldson has led his party out of the Stormont Executive altogether; the institutions are collapsing, again.

The exact timeline for this collapse is a little up in the air. At present, the seven-day period for re-nominating a First Minister ends on Thursday. But there is apparently a chance that the ‘MEPOC Bill‘, which contains a raft of provisions for extending the functional half-life of the Executive, could receive Royal Assent by then.

If it does, its provisions will apply retroactively for seven days and cover Paul Givan’s walking out. If so, the re-nomination period would extend to six weeks and other ministers could remain in-post.

Either way, the DUP have still ordered the suspension of checks, with Edwin Poots saying his decision is based on “sound legal advice” which he expects to be tested in court. Moreover, unlike the last time this happened, Truss has refused to have Westminster step in and order the checks conducted, claiming that it is a “matter for the Executive”.

The question is: is this part of an actual strategy? One can see why it might suit the Government to allow the Unionists to play bad cop. The current crisis shows that political unionism has not softened its opposition, and arguably that an unmodified Protocol now clearly poses a danger to the Province’s fragile peace settlement. The news that loyalist street protests against it are set to resume will add to the sense of crisis.

However, none of this changes the fact that it is ultimately for the Government to act. The rules are what they are; if the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary don’t seize the initiative, the EU will likely simply bring enforcement proceedings against the UK under the existing agreement and most likely win.

But are they minded to act? It is the central question, but from outside the black box it is almost impossible to answer.

For starters, a Government with a canny strategy to trigger Article 16 and a Government with no intention of triggering it possibly look exactly the same on the outside. Whitehall insiders have acknowledged from the start that it is absolutely essential that London can demonstrate that it has made every good-faith effort to secure the changes it needs if it is to win international acceptance for pulling that trigger.

As we noted before, putting a potential Tory leadership contender in charge might create a stronger pull towards a face-off with Brussels. But handing the Ulster brief to Truss has also brought the Foreign Office, with its own long-standing institutional culture, back into the Brexit process, from whence Theresa May banished it back in 2016. It seems unlikely the mandarins there are spoiling for a showdown.

On the other hand, she also took on some of Lord Frost’s team, well-versed in their old boss’s more muscular strategy. So the kremlinology could go either way.

Then there’s the question of whether or not there’s an actual plan for dealing with the fallout of Article 16. The EU has threatened massive retaliation. This is not what it ‘signed up to’, but this is another matter – as Lord Lilley pointed out on this site yesterday, EU law tends to acquire a somewhat protean quality when the Union’s own interests are at stake.

Is the Government ready to compound a looming cost-of-living crisis with another round of disruption at the Channel? Will Boris Johnson view such a confrontation as a welcome distraction from domestic woes, a chance to rally the old Brexit coalition? Or just another source of distraction and bad news? Much hinges on the answer. Perhaps even he doesn’t know it yet.

But he is running out of time to make up his mind, especially if there are still a lot of contingency plans to prepare. For all the sunny notes struck by Maroš Šefčovič, Whitehall sources remain pessimistic that the EU is going to move to a position that meets the UK’s asks. If London still refuses to act, rebuffed again and with Northern Ireland’s institutions on life support, it will be increasingly obvious that the will to act is absent.

The EU will certainly take note of that. And so will the loyalists.