Why do I get the feeling that British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s ‘hardball’ speech in the Commons basically ‘dishing’ the Northern Ireland Protocol is really her pitch to eventually become leader of the Tory Party?
As I suspected, the crisis in the Ukraine forced the European Union to take its eye politically off the Protocol ball - and that’s when the UK Government decided to strike!
Then again, in spite of the DUP also playing ‘hardball’ using the Northern Ireland Assembly and its power-sharing Executive, we still need to pose that awkward question, who is using whom in this game of Protocol brinkmanship?
Basically, the EU is the one player in this high stakes political poker game who has blinked first. The EU has underestimated the degree to which the Conservative Government would use Northern Ireland as a battering ram against the EU.
Effectively, in talking about legislation to reduce the impact of the Protocol, the Tory administration is sending a coded message to other EU member states which have a significant eurosceptic lobby, ‘you too can take on the might of Brussels - and win!’
While the DUP and other anti-Protocol Unionists have sold the idea that to let the Protocol function in its present state will result in the eventual break-up of the UK, in reality either scrapping the Protocol or politically castrating it to the degree it becomes a meaningless piece of paper effectively signals the potential break-up of the EU itself.
Put bluntly, who will be next to hold a referendum on EU membership, or even dump the euro as their preferred currency and return to their own individual currency? Why? ‘Well, if the British can take on the Protocol and win, why can’t we?’ That’s the growing eurosceptic sentiment quietly being whispered not just in the corridors of power in Brussels, but also in the corridors of parliament in Poland and Hungary - and maybe even in the corridors and tea rooms of Dublin’s Leinster House.
‘Don’t be daft’, the europhiles in Dublin will yell, ‘there’s no way the Irish Republic will either dump the euro and see the return of the historic punt as currency or even contemplate leaving the EU given all the millions we get from Brussels!’
But when David Cameron as Tory PM decided to hold his historic referendum on EU membership in 2016, the Remainers never contemplated the UK as a whole would vote ‘Leave’.
The Dublin administration comprising the historic pact between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to keep Sinn Fein out of a coalition government needs the Protocol to work in Northern Ireland.
If opinion polls are correct, Sinn Fein is on course at the next Dail General Election either to have an overall majority in the Dail, or at the very least, have enough TDs to become the major partner in a coalition government. There simply may not be enough non-Sinn Fein TDs to keep the republican movement’s mouthpiece out of power in Leinster House.
That’s why the establishment parties need the Protocol to show the Southern Irish voters they can deliver Irish Unity via the back door before Sinn Fein tries it.
Even if the Protocol is reduced to a meaningless piece of legislation, what magic rabbit can the Southern establishment parties pull out of the electoral hat at the next Dail poll to halt the Sinn Fein electoral roller coaster in its tracks?
Likewise, Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland needs the Protocol, not just as a back door to Irish Unity, but also to prove to those same Southern voters that it is capable of running a government - and what better way to do this than to run the Northern Ireland Assembly with Sinn Fein First Minister Michelle O’Neill in post?
What we are effectively witnessing in Northern Ireland is the Assembly’s version of the 2006 James Bond blockbuster movie, Casino Royale, and the famous high stakes poker game sequence. The question is, who will be the James Bond winner, and who will be the Le Chiffre loser?
For the DUP, at what point does it trust the Tory administration that enough has been done to politically neuter the Protocol so that it will nominate a Speaker for the Assembly and nominate a deputy First Minister to serve alongside Michelle O’Neill?
For the Tory Government, how long does it allow the DUP to play hardball with the Assembly before it decides ‘enough is enough’ and decides to scrap the Assembly in the same way that another Tory PM, Ted Heath, got rid of the original Stormont Parliament in 1972 and introduced Direct Rule from Westminster?
If the Assembly is finished in the long-term, and Direct Rule imposed, could the DUP campaign for the Northern Ireland Office to be staffed by Northern Ireland-elected Westminster MPs instead of having MPs parachuted in from constituencies in Great Britain.
This could suit both the DUP and SDLP whose MPs take their seats in the House of Commons, while Sinn Fein - in spite of having MPs who would be capable and competent of holding ministerial office in the NIO - still adheres to its outdated policy of abstentionism at Westminster since the party was founded in 1905.
Just as Sinn Fein changed its abstentionist policy to allow its elected representatives to take their seats in Stormont and the Dail, could we see another historic U-turn whereby Sinn Fein MPs take their Commons seats to allow them to hold ministerial office in a Direct Rule NIO?
However, this DUP hardball tactic would be on the assumption that if the Assembly fully collapsed, that it would be Direct Rule from Westminster and not some form of Joint Authority between London and Dublin which would replace Stormont.
In such a scenario, would Parliament Buildings become the home of the new Stormont Secretariat, similar in operation - but with much greater legislative powers - to the Belfast Maryfield Secretariat which was established under the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement giving Southern Ireland its first real say in the running of Northern Ireland since partition in the 1920s.
Just as we witnessed Michelle O’Neill leading her Sinn Fein MLAs into Stormont as the largest Assembly party, could we see Sinn Fein TDs led by Taoiseach Mary Lou McDonald walking up those same Stormont steps to implement joint authority in Northern Ireland?
The answer to these questions is simple - who blinks first politically?
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Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.