The DUP has a decision to make.
This is no sudden realisation; the party has known, ever since it embarked on its campaign of opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol – which led ultimately to its refusal to go back into the Assembly after last May’s elections and, in turn, to the ongoing limbo at Stormont – that one day a call would have to be made.
Now, to borrow the phrase from Jon Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool, “we’re very much in the endgame”.
It is clear that a deal is coming between the EU and UK on the protocol; once reached, the DUP must choose whether to accept it and go back into the Assembly or remain outside and continue to oppose it.
Publicly DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has been consistent: any deal must meet the DUP’s “seven tests”, which include economic and trading provisions about Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market, but also constitutional ones.
Rishi Sunak is no Boris Johnson, nor even a Liz Truss, and he has other priorities, not least the cost-of-living crisis and public sector strikes
He has been equally consistent in his interpretation that a deal is not close, saying on Monday that “substantial gaps” remain and repeating the statement that this is “not a time for sticking plasters” but for “serious negotiation which deals with the fundamental problem”.
If Donaldson sounds inflexible, it is because he needs to reassure the hardliners within his own party, as well as those such as loyalist activist Jamie Bryson and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister, who are constantly snapping at his heels from outside.
In London, the wind has changed. Prime minister Rishi Sunak is no Boris Johnson, nor even a Liz Truss, and he has other priorities, not least the cost-of-living crisis and public sector strikes.
Sunak wants a deal and will not jeopardise it over eight DUP MPs whose votes he does not need. In Belfast last week, Labour leader Keir Starmer gave an assurance that if a deal were to be reached, his party would back it. “There will be no sniping from us,” he said.
Once that deal is reached, so one argument goes, Donaldson will have little choice other than to compromise – even if, as appears likely, it will fall short of what the DUP wants.
“You have Donaldson, you have most of his Assembly party, I suspect most of his officers and MPs, who are savvy enough to know that if you bring down, if the Assembly goes, with it goes the most important platform that the DUP has,” says political commentator Alex Kane.
The notion that unionists would take the view that if they got anything half-plausible, they would accept it, doesn’t seem to reflect the history of unionism— A senior DUP source
His best option, therefore, is to try to sell whatever changes are put forward as a big DUP win on the protocol, delivered thanks to his party’s tough stance.
Last week’s arrangement on data sharing “opens the way to the red and green channels”, says Tonge. “Donaldson could try to sell it to the DUP that it had successfully maintained the integrity of the UK internal market.
“Whether everyone in the DUP will buy that, the TUV certainly won’t buy it, so Donaldson will feel the hot breath of Jim Allister down the back of his neck,” says Tonge, and it is likely that the sticking point of the European Court of Justice will remain.
“The notion that unionists would take the view that if they got anything half-plausible, they would accept it, doesn’t seem to reflect the history of unionism,” says one senior DUP source.
The alternative is to remain outside, potentially for an extended period, with all the consequences that might bring. The DUP will soon have to make its decision.