DUP likely to be weighing the desirability of striking a deal before May’s elections…

Newton Emerson points out in the Irish Times yesterday…

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.

In Conservative Home, former SpAd to Arlene Foster, Lee Reynolds warns that…

As the Prime Minister delays the announcement of his new deal with Brussels, the same clever sources are telling journalists how London and Brussels will bull-rush Unionism.

Yet those who want to ignore Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s Seven Tests seem to forget that they were not plucked from the sky: they are based on commitments made by the Government, not least the NI Protocol Bill.

Thus, far from showing up the DUP, those dismissing our red lines are merely trumpeting yet another defeat in Brussels for the UK Government.

Perhaps his team think bulldozing a deal through will boost the Conservatives at the next election. They should perhaps recall that the last prime minister to try it didn’t even reach the next election. [Emphasis added]

Newton again:

…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.

This important. Brexit only works if there’s a proper settlement with the EU, and that settlement can only be arrived at when the issue of the protocol is settled (in which case the DUP would be due some credit). Sooner suits Sunak, later Donaldson.

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.

This points (yet again) to the power granted to it by its incumbency as the lead unionist party under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, and indeed the power of the veto that the DUP is currently exercising over the nature of the protocol.

He also points out that unionist electorates are getting used to not having Stormont in play. It may be tempting for the DUP to avoid the existential pain of chancing a compromise too far, but there is also the risk of losing agency if you don’t use it.

Reynolds point about the seven tests deriving from previously stated UK government policy is well made, but when the half life of any government statement is becoming vanishingly small, that does not mean it’s a promise that can be cashed at the bank.

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