For the DUP to trust Boris Johnson and return to the Executive would be a gargantuan gamble
If what Boris Johnson is doing on the Northern Ireland Protocol is reckless, then it seems to be recklessness in moderation. That is uncharacteristic for Mr Johnson, and there is a danger for him that what he is doing is neither sufficiently cautious nor sufficiently bold to achieve his aims.
The Prime Minister’s trip to Northern Ireland was more controlled than a Royal Visit. He made no speeches, did not hold a press conference and took just a handful of questions from journalists in a brief ‘media huddle’.
Instead, his views on the NI Protocol were laid out in a lengthy essay for this newspaper. It is still not entirely clear who all contributed to drafting that piece, but Mr Johnson is understood to have been significantly involved. However, not everyone in the Government was impressed by it. One figure described it as “utterly inept”.
There is now a battle within a battle: While trying to force concessions out of the EU, Mr Johnson is aware of the threat he faces from his Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss. There have been unflattering unattributable briefings aimed at the Foreign Secretary, presenting her as being too gung-ho on the protocol, potentially precipitating a trade war.
Mr Johnson did not say that in his essay, but there was a hint of how his course now — at least presentationally — differs from that of more hardline Tory figures. Mr Johnson said clearly that he does not want the protocol scrapped. That could be a semantic difference if he intended to alter it so fundamentally that the document had been all but ditched. But RTE was briefed at the weekend that Mr Johnson’s government is not demanding the removal of the annexes to the protocol which set out the swathes of EU law which must continue to apply in Northern Ireland.
Instead, the Irish state broadcaster reported that Mr Johnson was looking for more flexibility in how those regulations are applied.
Mr Johnson is clearly willing about prompting a bust up with Brussels and EU member states. The politics of that could be good for a Prime Minister still mired in potentially career-ending scandal.
But he also seems to want to avoid going so far that he will enrage the EU. Thus, he is not only saying that the protocol will not be scrapped entirely, but he is also no longer even talking about the possibility of triggering Article 16.
In this, there is a glaring gap in the Prime Minister’s logic. On the one hand, he has set out in some detail how intolerable he believes the current situation is and how damaging it has been, citing examples from customs rules to how the protocol now limits the Chancellor’s ability to set VAT rates. On the other hand, his solution is to bring forward legislation which will take months before it can even pass through Parliament.
In the interim, Mr Johnson could use Article 16 as a temporary means of addressing the problems he identifies — if he truly believes these problems are of that magnitude. It is striking that Mr Johnson is so reluctant to do something which is wholly legal — triggering Article 16 — and instead is preparing to legislate to do something which breaks international law.
Here Mr Johnson is hoist by his own petard. He has threatened unilateral action to tear up chunks of the protocol in the Internal Markets Bill before quietly ditching that idea. One of the few things on which Stormont’s leaders can agree is that they haven’t an ounce of trust in this Prime Minister.
And therein Mr Johnson has a problem. If his aim is to conclusively resolve the protocol disaster and get the DUP to lift its veto on devolution, he needs them to be able to sell to their voters his means of addressing their problems. The DUP may well lift their veto of a Stormont Speaker after the legislation is announced, allowing the Assembly to function.
But it is hard to see how Sir Jeffrey Donaldson would lift his far more significant veto of the Executive without taking the sort of risk which might not just end his leadership, but might destroy the DUP. The party was repeatedly warned throughout the Brexit process not to trust Mr Johnson and it chose to do so.
The Assembly election represented a hardening of unionist sentiment. DUP sources indicate that it has received positive feedback about its refusal to go back into Stormont. That might baffle some observers, given that DUP voters have the same practical concerns as voters for other parties and are suffering equally due to the absence of a government.
But the response is in fact unsurprising. Few voters in Northern Ireland have voted primarily based on something like health policy (something almost impossible to do because the parties all say they agree on the issue). As politics becomes more polarised, those who voted for the DUP did so in many cases to secure a strong tribal champion.
When Sinn Féin pulled down the Executive in 2017, it was the most popular thing the party had done in years. So popular, in fact, that devolution did not return for three years. Now the DUP is finding itself in a similar position.
For the DUP to trust Mr Johnson now, with the sea border still fully in place, would be a gargantuan gamble.