Who will be the big beneficiary from the current game of political hard ball being acted out between the DUP, the Tories and the European Union? At some point, one of them will blink in this very high stakes political poker game.
It took decades of hard negotiating to get the 1998 Good Friday Agreement; it could only take a matter of days for brinkmanship to bring devolution to its knees.
Perhaps a more poignant question is - who is using whom in this political poker match? Is the DUP using ‘no Assembly’ to force the Tories into triggering Article 16 or bringing forward legislation to scrap the Protocol entirely?
Are the Tories using the DUP’s threats to the Assembly - and ultimately the peace process - to force the European Union into a major climbdown on the Protocol?
Is the European Union digging in its heels on the Protocol as a way of punishing the UK for leaving the EU and firing a warning shot across the bows of existing EU member states of the consequences of considering leaving?
Is the Irish government kicking off because it wants to use the Protocol to trigger a major debate on Irish Unity in a bid to spike Sinn Fein’s guns before the apologist party for the republican movement also becomes the largest party in the Dail?
And given the Sinn Fein mandate at Stormont, does it want the force the DUP into a climbdown on the power-sharing Executive so that it can get into government in the Northern Ireland Assembly simply to prove to Southern voters that it can be a responsible party of government in Leinster House?
In short, this is the political equivalent of the nail-biting poker game in the James Bond blockbuster, Casino Royale. The problem is, as with that famous movie, there has to be a big loser and there equally has to be a big winner.
Even if the Tories blink first and tell both the DUP and EU that it will bring forward legislation to effectively politically castrate the Protocol, how long will that process take?
If the DUP digs in its heels and pledges ‘government only when the Protocol is totally gone’, then at what point does the British Government pull the plug on Stormont as it did in 1972 and impose Direct Rule from Westminster?
Perhaps such a scenario would enable the DUP to collapse the Assembly completely and not share power with Sinn Fein. In such a scenario, the DUP should campaign for the Northern Ireland Office to be staffed by Northern Ireland MPs and not MPs from mainland Britain.
This would favour both the DUP and SDLP as Sinn Fein still refuses to abandon its 1905 founding principle of abstentionism from the House of Commons. However, in the past Sinn Fein has voted to overturn that outdated abstentionist policy regarding both the Dail and Stormont.
What happens in the event of Direct Rule from Westminster with an NIO staffed by Northern Ireland MPs, Sinn Fein decides to do another political U-turn and ditches abstentionism towards the House of Commons? Or would that be a bitter pill too much for traditional republicans to swallow?
Then again, if the Scottish and Welsh nationalist MPs and pro-republican MPs in the British Labour Party can take their seats at Westminster, why not Sinn Fein?
Of course, that is all based on the assumption London and Dublin will respond to any totally collapse of Stormont with Direct Rule from Westminster and not some form of joint authority involving both Dublin and London as equal partners with the NIO staffed by mainland Britain MPs and Leinster House TDs - a scenario where Northern Ireland could see Sinn Fein TDs from constituencies in the Republic directly running affairs in Northern Ireland.
It was the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement which saw the Irish Republic have its first real meaningful say in the running of Northern Ireland since partition in the 1920s. While Unionism and Loyalism tramped the streets of Northern Ireland with their Ulster Says No and Ulster Still Says No campaigns, the Republic poked its nose even deeper into Northern Ireland’s affairs using the Maryfield Secretariat outside Belfast.
If the Stormont Assembly was to finally be mothballed, could Unionism have to cope with an even harder version of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the cloud of joint authority hanging over it?
And in the background, what will the loyalist hard men make of a Stormont collapse, especially if the Protocol remains in place albeit in a less influential format? At what point, even, does the DUP blink and decide to enter the Executive, elect a Speaker, and even nominate for deputy First Minister.
Is the DUP holding out for an autumn election to Stormont where it can redress the two MLA advantage which Sinn Fein has over the DUP. Or even, could Unionism get back to a situation whereby the post of First Minister is decided - as with the Good Friday Agreement - by the largest designation, not the largest party?
The key question remains - who holds the ace cards in this high stakes political poker game?
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
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.