The British and Irish governments and EU negotiators need to remember the old proverb - one swallow does not make a summer. Listening to the Irish political establishment and EU representatives talk about the data sharing agreement, you could be forgiven for thinking the entire Protocol issue had been resolved in one fell swoop.
At the core of the UK/EU negotiations must be a firm answer to the question - what is more important; saving the Protocol or saving the peace process?
Likewise, to claim the data sharing agreement is some sort of breakthrough or victory for progress is akin to moving into a house when only the foundation has been built.
All the current negotiations will do is kick the political can further down the road in 2023 with the guessing game as to when a potential Assembly election could be staged.
With the planned local government elections in Northern Ireland pushed back to Thursday 18th May because of the coronation of King Charles III in early May, there is much speculation the Province could have two polls on the same day with the Stormont election possibly scheduled for 18 May too to give the UK/EU negotiators more time to compose a deal which the fundamentalist wing of the DUP will be happy with.
Given the cost of living crisis along with the collapse of the NHS, on paper it would seem logical that a fully functioning Stormont power-sharing Executive is essential.
The DUP will not enter an Executive, or even elect an Assembly Speaker, until the Protocol issue is resolved to the satisfaction of its traditional Paisleyite fundamentalist wing.
Sinn Fein is playing the wounded soldier card, emphasising how people are suffering because of a lack of devolved government in Northern Ireland, which is a bit rich coming from Sinn Fein given how the party’s military wing - the Provisional IRA - inflicted decades of suffering on the people of Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
What is required to resolve the impasse is not a temporary sticky plaster solution, but permanent radical surgery on the Protocol. It must either be dumped permanently in the dustbin of history, or diluted to such a degree that its influence is nothing more than a politically meaningless piece of used toilet paper.
As to a strategy to achieve this solution, perhaps the British Government should adopt the tactics used by former British PM, Maggie Thatcher, when faced with the supposed solutions devised by the republican talking shop, the New Ireland Forum, in the early 1980s.
To each of the Forum’s solutions, Maggie uttered her famous phrase ‘That is out’, which became known as her ‘out, out, out’ speech.
Unionism - and indeed, the entire peace process in this the 25th anniversary year of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement - needs to urge the current Tory PM Rishi Sunak to adopt a Thatcherite tactic towards any EU deal with the phrase ‘out, out, out’.
PM Sunak needs to emphatically tell the EU - “The Northern Ireland Protocol, that is out. The Irish Sea Border, that is out. The threat posed to Northern Ireland’s position within the Union, that is out.”
Ironically, the political rattlesnake in the woodpile could be the current United States President, ‘Sleepy’ Joe Biden, who clearly would love to come to Northern Ireland later this year to mark the Silver Jubilee of the Good Friday Agreement.
However, Biden is well known for being even more sympathetic towards Irish republicanism than his Democratic Party predecessor at the time of the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, Bill Clinton. Where Clinton was a facilitator in 1998, Biden could prove to be a major stumbling block for Unionism in 2023.
The wild card in this whole process is the war in Ukraine. With the EU constantly looking over its shoulder at the latest moves by Russian boss Vladimir Putin, the fate of the Northern Ireland Protocol has been relegated down the league of priorities for the EU.
Put bluntly, the EU does not multi-task and can only deal with one major crisis at a time. If Putin was ousted in a Moscow coup, or decided to withdraw all his forces from Ukraine, or was militarily defeated to the point he had to crawl away from Ukraine as the Soviets once had to do from Afghanistan, then that scenario would allow the EU to focus primarily on the Protocol and saving the peace process.
In this high stakes political poker game involving the peace process, the DUP needs to be very careful that if it does not get a fundamentalist-friendly solution to the Protocol and refuses to enter the Executive forcing a 1972-style collapse of Stormont, the replacement may not necessarily be Direct Rule from Westminster, but a form of Joint Authority involving London and Dublin.
The latter would give the Republic a very significant say in the running of Northern Ireland; even more influential than the role extended to Dublin by the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. This brought in the Maryfield Secretariat near Belfast which gave Dublin its first major say in the running of Northern Ireland since partition in the 1920s.
In that scenario of no Stormont and Joint Authority in reality, the danger is that the loyalist terror gangs will step in to fill the void in their eyes. In trying to find a resolution to the Protocol, all the political parties - and especially the fundamentalist wing of the DUP - have to ensure that a situation does not develop whereby the terror gangs become front and centre again.
The current problem is that, thus far, the UK/EU ‘deal’ is about as useful to the peace process as a chocolate fireguard.
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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.