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DUP’s stalling over protocol may be exasperating but it serves a purpose

The DUP needs breathing space - but its problem is that a parallel game is playing out in the Conservative Party

Bad news for everyone exhausted by the DUP’s protocol drama: there are at least three more months to go.

Northern Ireland has council elections on May 18th, two weeks later than originally scheduled to avoid clashing with the coronation of King Charles.

The DUP is strongly motivated to take no definitive stance on a protocol deal, let alone return to Stormont, before this date.

Accepting a deal would give the party’s opponents time to pick over the inevitable compromises and shortcomings and turn the election campaign into an attack on the DUP for agreeing to them. The TUV would obviously go on the offensive. So would the UUP – it could accept a deal was necessary while condemning the DUP for mishandling Brexit and making it necessary.


Dissent within the DUP and rumblings from loyalism are further problems leader Jeffrey Donaldson will not want to aggravate ahead of an election.

However, it is also dangerous to reject a deal before May.

The UK government could proceed without DUP agreement, as it has indicated it is willing to do.

Ideally, Donaldson wants a deal he can portray as a win for unionism, justifying a return to Stormont. That is already harder than intended, as the Stormont boycott is more popular with unionist voters than expected. Rejecting a deal paints the DUP further into this corner.

Nor would rejection ensure electoral gain. The DUP’s success in leading unionist opinion against the protocol imposes a limitation – having swept up most such voters, it will struggle to find many more.

The TUV would still go on the offensive, boasting it was setting the agenda. The UUP would condemn the crisis rejection would cause, as would every other party in Northern Ireland. There would also be criticism from Britain, Europe and beyond – opprobrium that could unsettle some DUP voters, or energise nationalists, driving the DUP’s percentage share of the vote down even if its total vote holds up.

Deal or no deal, the DUP’s vote share will probably fall because it was the largest party in the previous council election in 2019, while the TUV was insignificant on 2 per cent of the vote – it is now polling at 7 per cent.

The only way to prevent this fall becoming a verdict on the DUP’s protocol position is to procrastinate, which is exactly what the party is doing.

It is certainly possible Sunak could be in trouble after May 4th, unable to sell a deal to his own party. The reaction in Brussels could be to hold out for a Labour government, towards the end of next year

Donaldson is making positive noises about EU-UK negotiations, dropping hints that one final push will meet his requirements. He brought a delegation of DUP moderates to meet prime minister Rishi Sunak in Belfast last week, as was widely noted.

Meanwhile, DUP hardliners are insisting a deal must deliver far more than is plausible.

This good-cop/bad-cop routine is not so much orchestrated as being allowed to happen. Whether Donaldson can impose sufficient discipline to stop it is another question postponed until after May.

Three more months of teasing over a deal might not feel like a long time to the DUP, which rejected the protocol two years ago.

It will seem longer to the UK government, which wanted a deal this week. But DUP procrastination would be good enough for London’s purposes.

“We don’t need them to say yes,” a Whitehall source told Tuesday’s Times. “We just need them not to say no.”

Within these terms the DUP’s stalling is rational and even responsible, no matter how exasperating others find it. Once May’s election is out of the way, there is plenty of time for the DUP to slink back into Stormont with the protocol in operation and let unionist voters get used to the idea. A one-off Assembly election has been indefinitely postponed and the current mandate is valid until 2027. With that much breathing space, the DUP can embrace a deal, or put on a show of reluctantly acquiescing to it, or officially reject it then enter Stormont regardless and brazen it out, as it did with the Belfast Agreement after 1998.

But all this ignores a parallel game inside the Conservative Party.

Council elections will take place across much of England on May 4th. The Tories are polling at historic lows and Sunak’s internal opponents are waiting to pounce – one reason he would like to “get Brexit done” with a protocol deal first.

Parts of the DUP will be tempted by another roll of the Westminster dice, holding out for a new prime minister who might deliver a better deal. Tory Brexiteers will be whispering in their ear this is possible.

It is certainly possible Sunak could be in trouble after May 4th, unable to sell a deal to his own party. The reaction in Brussels could be to hold out for a Labour government, towards the end of next year.

That exhausting prospect could soon appear worth the wait.