Last week, on the eve of a keynote speech by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, a source inside the DUP spoke of the autumn being “fraught with danger” and predicted, that when his party leader spoke on Thursday, we would see the “nuclear button” but it would not be pressed. Not yet.
“You’ve to take a few steps before you get there,” the source commented – meaning that collapsing the Stormont institutions would not be the first play in his party’s protest action against the protocol.
The speech by Donaldson, my source told me, would outline the consequences of inaction while allowing space for action.
Step one was on ending North/South cooperation except for health – and the future of Stormont now depends on the negotiations involving the U.K. government and the EU. Within weeks a decision will be made whether the institutions stand or fall, and once again, we are on that walk to the political edge.
SHOULD WE BE SURPRISED?
In the early months of this year, there was talk in parts of the unionist/loyalist community about a possible 2021 election; an argument about not waiting until May 2022.
Go early. Fight it on fears about the Union, fears about a border poll and fears of a Sinn Fein First Minister – and that all of this would energise the unionist vote.
Three DUP leaders later, that talk had quietened – that is until the Donaldson speech of last Thursday.
“Within weeks it will become clear if there is a basis for the Assembly and Executive to continue in this current mandate, and I want that to happen,” Sir Jeffrey said.
“But, equally, we will also need to consider whether there is a need for an Assembly election to refresh our mandate if action is not taken to address and resolve the issues related to the protocol and its impact, its damaging impact on Northern Ireland each and every day.”
ARE UNIONISTS ABOUT TO ADD ANOTHER SCENE TO THE 2021 NIGHTMARE?
This centenary year for Northern Ireland has been more about crisis and convulsions than cake and candles; unionism in disarray – the coup and then counter-coup inside the DUP putting all the dirty washing in the lines and on the lines for all to see.
Has the damage already been done? Is there a way back? Can a fractured unionism be fixed or united? Can a Sinn Fein march to the position of First Minister be stopped?
In an interview with View From Stormont on Monday, Donaldson addressed that latter point: “If we end up in a situation where Sinn Fein are the largest party, I think that presents a real problem for unionism,” he said.
“I don’t want to be in that place,” he continued. “I am prepared to go and put my case to the country. The DUP will fight that election on the basis that we want unionism to win.”
The old certainties are gone. You hear it in those words from the DUP leader.
Things have changed.
The protocol – that sea border – already means that the Union is different.
Politics in the here-and-now is high-wire and high-stakes.
This latest Ulster crossroads was both predicted and predictable.
The starting point was in the blind-alley of Brexit.
A series of election results since, including unionists losing their overall majority in the Stormont Assembly, means there is new writing on the wall – a different map and politics moving in a different direction.
The ‘New Ireland’ conversation is no longer dismissed as some fanciful pipedream.
FRAUGHT WITH DANGER
The protocol is one piece in a bigger jigsaw.
Old battles on legacy and policing and the Irish language will be part of that autumn “fraught with danger”.
Will the DUP collapse Stormont?
One observer sees an early election fought on the protocol as the DUP’s “least worst option”.
Another source calls it “an act of desperation”.
There is another question about whether Secretary of State Brandon Lewis would call an early election or allow another of those standstill periods at Stormont.
Politics languished in a kind of purgatory from 2017 through to 2020, when the British and Irish Governments in an initiative shaped by then Secretary of State Julian Smith and Tanaiste Simon Coveney saved Stormont from itself.
Would there be any mood for another rescue mission of that type?
Each crisis takes Stormont a step closer to its endgame – and closer again to blowing its last chance.
This is the nightmare of 2021 – the centenary crisis on a very public stage.