After a visit from Sinn Féin’s vice president last week, Cobh and Harbour Chamber posted online that “First Minister Michelle O’Neill” had visited their offices. It was an easy mistake to make, but the truth is that Ms O’Neill could still be the first minister who never was.
It is increasingly improbable that the DUP will return to the Stormont Executive by the October 28 deadline. By law, that means an election by January 20.
The alternative to this scenario is for the DUP to back down and return to the Executive without the Irish Sea border being removed. However, the next few weeks are not traditional compromise territory for unionism.
In nine days’ time, the Twelfth of July will see denunciations of the protocol delivered from Orange Order platforms. Those speeches won’t be heard by vast crowds of people — the platform proceedings attract a modest audience. The political power of the Twelfth is as a mass gathering.
Hundreds of thousands of Protestants will mingle and talk. Many are there only for a day of music and colourful tradition, but others will ponder the political future. While some Orangemen are moderate, the institution is rooted in conservatism, its instincts are staunchly anti-protocol.
The messages picked up by DUP members over the Twelfth will be important — all the more important because Jeffrey Donaldson is still a weak leader, at the mercy of a party which last year came dangerously close to splitting and where some of the most prominent members have long and vengeful memories.
Thus far, the DUP’s hardline stance has — in electoral terms — been vindicated. The party was polling 13pc last year when Arlene Foster was grudgingly accepting the protocol. After collapsing Stormont, it was just two seats behind Sinn Féin in May’s election.
The week after the election, the DUP stand at Balmoral Show — an indicator of the party’s rural support — was said to have been echoing with words of commendation for the DUP’s stance. Two weeks later Donaldson was cheered by the bystanders as he walked with his Orange lodge from Stormont to Belfast city centre as part of the Orange parade to celebrate Northern Ireland’s centenary.
By the end of May, a poll showed three quarters of all unionists believed the DUP should stay out of the Executive until the protocol is either removed completely or significantly changed.
Just 7pc of voters (and a mere 3pc of DUP voters) said the party should return to government immediately, because the protocol is less important than issues such as the cost of living and the health service.
This effectively means Donaldson has no decision to make; if he went back into government tomorrow morning he could be ousted by nightfall.
Whatever his personal views — and they are more moderate than much of his party — he is now a prisoner to the popularity of his decision to pull down the Executive. The one gesture he could make would be to allow an Assembly Speaker to be elected, allowing the legislature to function.
But that would do nothing to stop the ticking clock which will see caretaker ministers ejected in October and an election having to be called, unless Westminster changes the law. This is not without peril for the main unionist party.
Even while basking contentedly in a level of support from unionist voters to which the DUP has for years been unaccustomed, some senior party figures have been wary about the future.
They know it is unlikely that the protocol is going to vanish entirely. They know Boris Johnson — and indeed many of his colleagues — cannot be trusted.
They also know that the longer this goes on, the more pressure they are going to face to restore Stormont. Soaring inflation and winter pressures in a crumbling health service could mean an ugly mood as voters go to the polls in mid-winter.
There is a second peril for the DUP.
It is already widely believed within nationalism that the DUP’s Executive veto is not really about the protocol, but is because it can’t stand what the party views as the humiliation of being deputy first minister to Ms O’Neill.
That view is almost certainly wrong. The DUP has publicly said since the election that it will take the deputy first minister’s post if the protocol is resolved. In truth it has no choice, given the philosophical incoherence of accepting the outcome of this electoral system until it lost.
But the DUP has nurtured this conspiratorial view by repeatedly refusing to confirm during the election campaign that it would accept a Sinn Féin first minister.
Alluding to how Arlene Foster’s infamous “crocodile” jibe in 2017 — when Sinn Féin’s demand for an Irish language act saw nationalists flock to Sinn Féin — a shrewd senior unionist this week said: “If Sinn Féin don’t occupy the first minister role for a single day before the next election, it will be crocodiles on steroids for nationalists.” In other words, Sinn Féin could grow even larger.
However, there is a temptation for the DUP which some in the party might find irresistible.
Many unionists are dismayed at the thought of Ms O’Neill as first minister — regardless of that title being wholly symbolic — and some of them may regret voting for other parties or staying home in May.
In Northern Ireland’s zero-sum politics, a victory for one side can quickly energise supporters of the opposing side to restore a sort of equilibrium.
That happened in 2017, when in the Assembly election in March the DUP lost 10 MLAs and unionism lost its Stormont majority for the first time.
Just three months late, a reeling unionism returned to the DUP in the snap general election, giving the DUP its greatest result of 10 MPs — who, through a fluke of parliamentary arithmetic, came to hold the balance of power in the House of Commons.
Regardless of a Stormont election, next year’s council elections mean that compromise could split the DUP.
Yet without it, a party accustomed to holding power will be powerless for years — and that could cause its destruction.