Northern Ireland Protocol: Is the DUP's defiance starting to soften?

Enda McClafferty
BBC News NI Political Editor

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DUPImage source, Downing Street
Image caption,
Boris Johnson - seen here with DUP politicians - was in Northern Ireland on Monday to encourage the parties to re-form Stormont

Every high-wire act needs a safety net and Stormont is no different.

It came in the form of legislation designed to ensure that no matter what happened, the facade of government would survive.

All the bases were covered or so officials thought.

A functional assembly providing cover for a dysfunctional executive.

But that safety net, carefully woven at Westminster, fell apart when the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) blocked the election of a Speaker as part of its protest against the protocol.

But is the DUP defiance now starting to soften?

The government's pledge to legislate "within weeks" to override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol changed the mood on the DUP benches.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said it was a "significant" first step but not significant enough to bring back the assembly.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
The protocol is a special arrangement that keeps Northern Ireland aligned with the EU single market for goods

Instead, he pointed to a "graduated" response from his party.

That could mean if and when the government protocol legislation is laid at Westminster, DUP assembly members returning to Stormont to support the election of a Speaker.

Final hurdle

If as promised by the government the legislation is moved within weeks, that could pave the way for the assembly's return in June.

But do not expect the DUP to take their seats around the executive table.

That card will likely be held until the legislation passes its final hurdle, or if a deal is reached with the EU on protocol changes which the DUP can live with.

Scrapping the protocol is not on the radar and it was noted how both the DUP leader and the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss talked about "revised" arrangements.

But there is little prospect of a deal anytime soon and negotiations are likely to run in tandem with the protocol-busting legislation passing through parliament.

So while we may see assembly members back in the chamber before the summer recess we are unlikely to see a fully-functioning executive restored.

That will bring pressure at a time when energy bills are set to soar in the autumn.

That will also bring us closer to the 24-week deadline to form an executive and the point when the secretary of state, Brandon Lewis, is legally bound to call an election.

Another poll cannot be ruled out, but if by then Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O'Neill has still been denied the keys to the first minister's office, expect the green vote to be energised like never before.

Holding out for another election carries many risks for the DUP.

Holding out for the prime minister to deliver on a protocol promise is also high risk, but it may be the easier option as it buys some time.