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Newton Emerson: Donaldson must reconcile unionism to the protocol

As Sinn Féin paints itself as the responsible party, new DUP leader must spot the danger

Everyone is exhausted with the DUP's drama, including the DUP. Newly crowned leader Jeffrey Donaldson is benefiting from a peace process-type moment of public and political relief. His party, split down the middle two weeks ago, is united behind him. Nobody wants to argue over Irish language legislation and everyone is pretending its guaranteed passage, be that through Westminster or Stormont, completes the deal last year to restore devolution. In reality, the deal remains largely undelivered.

Every party in the Executive is calling for a period of calm and consolidation. Many are also calling on Donaldson to leave First Minister Paul Givan in post, just to avoid the fuss of replacing him. When it emerged last month that Givan might be nominated by Donaldson's predecessor, Edwin Poots, the same parties were aghast.

A striking feature of this moment is Sinn Féin staking out the role of responsible leadership. If anything is going to endure from this brief political interlude, it will come from whatever republicans feel they have learned from it.

Sinn Féin has never resolved the dilemma of governing a region it cannot even bring itself to name. It has often been tempted into a chaos strategy, causing Stormont to fail or cease to function for six of the past nine years. If a "calm strategy" keeps it topping the polls while unionism splinters, the dilemma could be decisively resolved. Sinn Féin, bizarrely, might become the natural party of government in Northern Ireland.


Semantic distinctions are being carefully noted. Calling for the protocol's abolition is hopeless belligerence

The cynically engineered electoral competition between Sinn Féin and the DUP ratcheted their votes up together, then down together as despairing voters deserted them in the Alliance surge, until the implosion of the DUP over Brexit suddenly left Sinn Féin polling 9 percentage points ahead. This is the “safety margin” for the nationalist electorate – the extent to which Sinn Féin can be punished for failure without putting unionists back in the lead. Although republicans will never adopt the SDLP slogan of “making Northern Ireland work”, they have been given a tremendous incentive to make Stormont work.

Marching season

All this assumes the chaos within unionism can be contained. Donaldson needs to lead the DUP back to a position of "making the Northern Ireland protocol work", as former leader Arlene Foster briefly attempted at the start of this year. He will have to do so slowly, to avoid the accusations of U-turns and rollovers that sank Foster and Poots, yet he will also have to move quickly enough to prevent a marching season disaster.

The new DUP leader must square this with a looming Stormont election, already pitched to unionist voters as a de facto protocol referendum, as the next assembly gets a vote in 2024 to continue some sea border arrangements.

How do you make the protocol work, then go to the polls telling people this is their chance to scrap it?

Semantic distinctions are being carefully noted. Calling for the protocol’s abolition is hopeless belligerence. Sounding just tough enough, while welcoming whatever compromise might be offered, is the only way forward.

In his leadership campaign against Poots last month, Donaldson vowed to “vigorously oppose the protocol both in principle and in practice” and to boycott North-South institutions even if this threatened to collapse devolution.

There will be grim amusement at this in the UUP, where Donaldson was the hardliner who brought down David Trimble two decades ago

This week, on becoming DUP leader, he said “I will play my part to bring stability” if the UK and EU “recognise” and “deal with” the “flaws in the protocol”.

A deal could arrive just in time. The exhaustion at Stormont is echoed between London and Brussels, with both sides treating another three-month delay to food inspections as a chance to de-escalate tensions.

Word games

Poots says the UK government promised him “very significant changes” to the protocol, to be announced in weeks. Loyalists have received similar assurances, although the UK government has begun downplaying this, saying it was mostly referring to the extension.

Some time next month, somewhere amid all these word games, Donaldson needs to find a position to start reconciling unionism to the protocol. His first test will be getting loyalism to accept anything less than the protocol’s removal – a daunting challenge over a fraught Twelfth of July. Even in the current spell of calm, Donaldson is hurtling towards a face-off with hardliners: the moment of truth that confronts every unionist leader and has destroyed most of them.

There will be grim amusement at this in the UUP, where Donaldson was the hardliner who brought down David Trimble two decades ago. He is a transformed figure since, working easily alongside Sinn Féin, but that is not the change most urgently required. In late 2013, Donaldson was part of the DUP negotiating team that scuppered a major Stormont deal after loyalist campaigner Jamie Bryson warned of a wave of "band culture" protests. It was an almost unbelievably pathetic surrender, with political repercussions that continue to this day.

Unless Donaldson has become a much tougher character, a dramatic summer beckons.