Lagan Valley MLA could start by explaining why unionists feel threatened by the protocol
Edwin Poots faces exactly the same problem as Arlene Foster faced. She may have been thrown to the wolves by the party because of her perceived ambivalence on the Northern Ireland Protocol (back in January she seemed to be suggesting a make-the-best-of-it approach), but there is no hard evidence Poots has a cast-iron strategy for removing it. Which means the issue will continue to dog the DUP for months, and in dogging the DUP will also dog broader unionism, loyalism, the Orange Order and the relationship between unionism and nationalism in the Assembly.
Amid all the talk of upping the ante and finding new ways of dumping the protocol (at the moment, a Judicial Review, pop-up protests, threats to grind the north-south institutions to a standstill, and creating the circumstances for an early election or crashing the Assembly are all in play), it strikes me that something of great significance has been overlooked: the real reason why unionism is angered by the protocol.
Non-unionists dismiss unionist concerns, insisting the protocol is just some sort of trading/economic/customs arrangement to solve a problem linked to the survival of the Good Friday Agreement. Some go further, claiming unionists brought it all upon themselves and should stop their whingeing (although 40% of unionists backed Remain). Others argue the protocol isn't a constitutional threat at all, because Northern Ireland's position within the UK can only be changed by a majority in a border poll voting to end the Union.
But for unionists, the protocol is more, much more than a trading/economic/customs arrangement. It is an entirely new line of separation between Northern Irish unionism and Great Britain. A formal, legal demarcation line indicating that Northern Ireland (governed by EU regulations) is not the same as the rest of the UK. Yes, Northern Ireland has long been regarded as a 'place apart' within the UK, but it has always been within the UK. That is no longer the case, and that is the key difference this time.
Perception is one of the most important things in politics. Something doesn't necessarily have to be real. It is the perception which makes the difference. Makes it real, if you like. So, while it seems fine to tell unionists they are still fully within the UK, it certainly doesn't feel like it to them when they are governed by rules that don't apply to the rest of the UK. It doesn't feel like it when there is something which is now described as a new border. It doesn't feel like it when products that used to flow easily from Great Britain to Northern Ireland have stopped flowing.
Now, compare unionist perception with the perception in nationalism and republicanism about suggested changes to the existing land border a few years ago. What is the specific difference with a border between the UK and Republic of Ireland and exactly the same border marking the difference between the UK and the EU? In real terms, very little. But in terms of perception, enormous. So enormous, in fact, that the EU and the British government were persuaded that new trading/economic/customs arrangements could not be placed at the existing border.
So, how come that perception was allowed to trump the unionist perception about the consequences and realities of the protocol? Why is it seemingly okay to tell them to suck it up, but not okay to tell nationalism to suck it up? And does anyone really think Sinn Fein and the Irish government would have been more sanguine about the Irish border, or more understanding of unionist concerns about the protocol, had all of political unionism opposed Brexit?
Maybe Edwin Poots needs to stop upping the ante, playing to an LCC/Orange gallery and withdrawing cooperation with some parts of the GFA, and instead start explaining to the British and Irish governments, along with the EU Commission, precisely why unionism is so uncomfortable with the protocol. My impression has long been that unionism has wasted so much time with relentless anger that the roots and fears associated with the anger have been entirely lost on everyone else. Lost too on the business community and wider civic society in Northern Ireland. And maybe lost on some voters who will be looking outside unionism right now.
Unionists have been bad at properly explaining their truest, deepest concerns about the protocol. Maybe they don't fully understand it themselves. But I can't help thinking that explaining their perceptions and fears is a better approach than the usual assortment of protests, 'threats' and empty gestures: an approach which dates back to the late 1960s and rarely, if ever, delivers for them.
I'm not suggesting that Poots should simply turn tail on the DUP's ongoing response. But I am suggesting he also finds a way of opening more doors and shining greater light on how unionist perceptions might be acknowledged and addressed to everybody's satisfaction. Maybe no bad idea for a new leader to adopt a new approach.