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10 September 2021

Is Stormont about to collapse over the Northern Ireland protocol?

Boris Johnson succeeded in making the Irish border Stormont’s problem. It’s hard to see how that gets resolved.

By Stephen Bush

Jeffrey Donaldson has threatened to collapse Stormont unless the Northern Ireland protocol is thrown out. 

Donaldson’s policy problem is that no one in either the British government or the European Union envisages a world without some kind of Northern Ireland-related treaty between them. David Frost’s recent speech about the protocol’s future was largely briefed, covered and received in the UK, Ireland and across the EU as a brusque and robust position. But the reality, as Denis Staunton noted over at the Irish Times, was how much Frost conceded and how the British government has implicitly accepted that its negotiating position is weak.  

One reason why it is weak is that if you want to avoid border checks, you have to have a degree of regulatory alignment, so you are either looking at something like the protocol, or something like the UK-wide backstop. The latter has been explicitly rejected by the United Kingdom (and frankly, I doubt that something which delivers such a big chunk of access to the EU’s market for comparatively little in return is going to be offered to any country outside the EU any time soon). Which means, whatever happens, the British government is looking at something a lot like the protocol, and something that thickens the sea border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. 

[see also: Boris Johnson only has himself to blame for the problems caused by the Northern Ireland protocol]

Is Donaldson bluffing, acting the strongman in a bid to win votes for the DUP back from the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party? That his party’s position in the polls is so poor is one reason why many believe so. But given that the DUP, for the moment, has the high-profile incumbent candidates and is better placed to pick up transfers under Stormont’s single transferable vote system than the TUV, you can see why Donaldson might believe that a quick end and the possibility of snap elections is a better bet for his party than a slow and painful collapse as May 2022 comes into view.  

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Boris Johnson’s big diplomatic coup in the Northern Ireland protocol (which was otherwise the EU’s initial proposal for how to solve the border question) is that Stormont, in theory, holds the right to vote its way out of the protocol. Now, in practice, that right is so caveated and limited as to be meaningless: except, that is, that it puts the border question right at the heart of Stormont. Whether it is today, tomorrow or after the scheduled elections in 2022, it is hard to see how the protocol and power-sharing can be reconciled in the immediate future.  

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[See also: What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?]