The Government is pondering three main options for the future of the Northern Ireland Protocol.  None of them bode well.

First, simply rolling forward the present grace periods indefinitely.  It’s worth clocking at the start, since so much of the discussion about the Protocol is bound up with debate about international law, that these are arguably illegal in that context.

But note that the EU, having threatened legal action over them in March last year, reached a deal with the Government three months later.  Nor are civil servants rushing for independent legal advice about the grace periods, as they did after Edwin Poots urged the waiving of customs checks in February.

The lesson of these tos and fros is that politics trumps law when it comes to the dealing with the EU – itself a serial breaker of international law over World Trade Organisation rules, “flouting rulings on GMO crops, hormone beef, and Airbus subsidies,” as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has pointed out.

“It picks and chooses when it will be bound by international law like everybody else,” he wrote – and international law is certainly not as developed as domestic law.  Nonetheless, muddling on with the grace periods, crossing their fingers and praying for luck isn’t a realistic option for Ministers.

This is because unionist parties opposed to the Protocol won two votes in five in last week’s Assembly elections.  So it doesn’t have cross-community consent, to use a term from the Belfast Agreement, at least when operated by the EU as presently.

The number of regulatory checks currently required on goods arriving into Northern Ireland from Great Britain equates to 20 per cent of the total undertaken by the entire EU – all in order to protect 0.2 per cent of its trade.  Proof were it needed that for the EU, as for everyone else, politics trumps not only law but economics.

So as long as the Protocol operates as now, and perhaps at all, it will be unacceptable to most unionists (if those elections are a guide to the future).  And don’t forget the impact on them of the EU’s own triggering of Article 16 in January.

It proposed to ban exports of vaccines across the land border – heaven forbid that these might reached the benighted population of the United Kingdom and help to lives.  “The whole moral basis for the Protocol [was] destroyed in unionism’s eyes,” Lord Frost said recently.

“It had shown that the EU’s interests came first, whatever the Protocol said. The situation has never recovered.”  There is an impasse.  The DUP won’t go into government with Sinn Fein.  Which leaves a vacuum in Northern Ireland – where these are very dangerous.

The second option is to move Article 16, which would of course be entirely legal.  But what is legal isn’t always practicable.  The EU rowed back frantically from its triggering of Article 16 for precisely this reason: it knew that it would lose twice over – first in the court of public opinion and then under arbitration proceedings, if it persisted.

And while Article 16 allows for unilateral safeguarding measures if the Protocol causes “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade”, these must be “restricted with regard to their scope and duration”.

The Government is looking for a permanent solution to the problems of the Protocol – not time-limited unilateral action which, if extended indefinitely, would fall foul of arbitration.  Furthermore, the triggering of Article 16 would open the door to the EU taking “proportionate rebalancing measures” – not ideal.

This takes us to the problem with the third option: passing legislation at Westminster to over-ride the Protocol – either potentially or actually.  Officials working for Liz Truss were reported yesterday to be drawing up legislation to that effect which could be implemented as early as next week.

Perhaps the EU would back down in the event of such legislation, as it did in the wake of the last big controversy about the Protocol and international law.  Many remember the row about the Government’s public threat to break it.  Fewer recall the outcome.

Which was that Michael Gove and Maros Sefvocic clinched a deal amending the operability of the Protocol in relation to most goods, state aid, unfettered access to the market in Great Britain and ending checks from goods going to Great Britain from Northern Ireland.

So perhaps the EU would climb down again.  And perhaps it wouldn’t.  In which event, the consequence could be the suspension of the UK-EU trade agreement, with severe economic and political consequences for both – not least fragile Northern Ireland.

This explains why Gove and Rishi Sunak have been urging caution, and I was told yesterday that Truss’s actions “to take ownership of the plan” have “raised a few eyebrows” in government.  This is because of the domestic as well as the international politics.

It is possible that a Conservative leadership election will take place later this year, and the Foreign Secretary cannot ignore the view of the Party’s right, which would provide the base of her votes in such an event.  But the politics of the Protocol and the Party cuts two ways.

For if the last row about the Protocol and international law was a humdinger, just wait until this coming one, assuming that it happens.  The EU’s intransigence may have shifted opinion on the backbenches, and a trade war might see Tory MPs band together in patriotic unity.  Again: perhaps so, perhaps not.

It isn’t hard to see how a leadership ballot could emerge from the chaotic mix of Partygate, Beergate, the cost of living crisis…and a trade war, with legislative attrition between Lords and Commons over a Bill to over-ride the Protocol.    So, then: three grim options.  Is there a fourth – other than simply caving in.  I can see how there could be.

If the Government really is to take action that could spur a trade war, it must be prepared to see it through to the end. The Beef War of the Major years is not a happy precedent. The alternative is a deal – as so often. Here is Lord Frost’s take on the EU’s motives.

“We cannot rely on the help of the EU in Northern Ireland.I do not think they are operating in bad faith. But I do believe they see their own interests as coming first – reasonably enough.”  Hence the turning of the screw by means of the Protocol.

The EU’s interests include an aim that came to nothing during the Brexit negotiations – a defence and security deal with the UK.  Why didn’t it?  The reasons range from the EU clinging to ‘off the shelf’ models for a deal to British antipathy to the European Court of Justice.

But the war in Ukraine is a reminder of the security threats that Europe – not merely the EU – faces from Russia and China.  And there is a precedent for avoiding entanglement with the ECJ: it has a potential role under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement but not under those of the Trade and Co-Operation Agreement.

There are already a mass of British and European defence structures outside NATO: the Northern Group, the E3, the European Intervention Initiative.  Another could be traded off against a revised Protocol.  It depends how badly the EU wants that security deal.

As I’ve written many times before, a hard border either on the island of Ireland or in the Irish sea won’t work.  The sensible option is to have neither.  And never forget: the Protocol is instrinsically temporary.