The elephant in the room: why are the Tories trying to sideline Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland: most people here aren’t bothered about the protocol that puts a trade border between the Province and the rest of the UK. Are the Tories entertaining the DUP’s block to the restoration of the Stormont assembly because it aligns with their own differences with the European Union?

Isn’t it strange that the Queen’s Speech made no mention of the Northern Ireland Protocol that is currently the greatest threat to peace in the United Kingdom?

Prince Charles, standing in for Her Majesty, announced no fewer than 38 planned new laws – and not one of them explained how Boris Johnson’s government plans to tackle the constitutional crisis that has flared up in the Province.

I think it’s because Johnson doesn’t know what to do. He has painted himself into this corner with his silly rushed Brexit and now he can’t get out of it.

For those who don’t know: the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit agreement keeps open the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by creating a hard trade border between the Province and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Last week’s local elections returned a majority of members to the Stormont assembly who approve of that agreement – but Stormont is run on a power-sharing basis, and the second-largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party, is refusing to nominate any of its members to the new administration until a deal is struck that dismantles the border with the rest of the UK.

Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein, who is set to be the new First Minister, has said it is the responsibility of Boris Johnson and his government to resolve the problems over the protocol – by negotiation with the European Union. This has created something of a domino effect.

The EU itself has acknowledged that the Protocol has created difficulties – and offered proposals last October to ease the burden of checks and paperwork.

The EU said it would mean inspections of food products would be reduced far below what is usually required at single-market borders, but the plan came with caveats and the UK said the EU needed to do more.

Now, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan has said the UK may decide to scrap the protocol altogether – and a source close to Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said she was considering legislation to scrap parts of the Brexit treaty unilaterally – without seeking agreement from the EU.

In turn, the EU’s chief negotiator, Maroš Šefčovič, has said that the EU had already “shown a lot of flexibility by proposing impactful, durable solutions and we stand ready to continue discussions. We need the UK government to dial down the rhetoric, be honest about the deal they signed and agree to find solutions within its framework”.

This has been interpreted as a threat of a possible trade war if Truss goes ahead and trashes the protocol.

It’s a big mess – of Boris Johnson’s making. But some have suggested that the only people with whom the UK government should be negotiating are the DUP.

The majority of people in Northern Ireland support the protocol as it stands – or at least, they have voted a majority of representatives into Stormont who support it – and some say this means the DUP should accept it as it is, and not use it to disrupt the power-sharing agreement that helps to maintain the fragile peace the Province has enjoyed since 1998.

It seems only six per cent of the NI electorate see the protocol as a major issue, which suggests that the problem lies only with the DUP.

This Site has previously mentioned rumours that the DUP is only using the protocol as a means of ensuring that the unionist party will not take a position subordinate to nationalists – even though the titles of First Minister and Deputy First Minister are practically meaningless; power is shared between the two major parties.

The possible consequences for Northern Ireland could be catastrophic. But surely, nobody wants a return to the situation before the Good Friday Agreement, do they?

So perhaps NI Secretary Brandon Lewis simply needs to take a robust stance and present it to the DUP. Or are the Tories entertaining the DUP’s rebellion because it suits them to?

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