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Mary Kelly: Would-be leaders of unionism are not being straight on NI Protocol

Jeffrey might sound like the 'visionary' candidate by comparison to this kamikaze strategy from Poots but his fingerprints are effectively all over the Northern Ireland Protocol

The unmasking of Ian Buckells as Lind of Duty's 'H' added to the sense of anticlimax of a week in which Edwin Poots and Jeffrey Donaldson announced their candidacies for the DUP leadership. BBC Pictures
Mary Kelly

IT'S been an underwhelming week – from the unmasking of dozy Ian Buckells as 'H' in Line of Duty, a wet bank holiday Monday stranded in an Ikea car park, and the future of unionism being a choice between Edwin Poots and Jeffrey Donaldson.

Oh and Norn Ireland “celebrated” its centenary with a nice message from the queen and... er, that was mostly it.

Sometimes politics here can veer towards the surreal. Just a few weeks ago the then leader of unionism, Arlene Foster, was calling for the head of the chief constable and Sinn Féin was pleading with her to engage with the PSNI. I wonder if Simon Byrne sent her a letter of sympathy.

Now we're told that Jim Wells, champion of anything that defies common sense and logic, could emerge as a 'kingmaker' in the contest. Cast into political Siberia by Arlene Foster, he's now welcomed back into the fold as a keen supporter of the Poots challenge.

And Poots is briefing that he wants to be party leader, but not first minister; instead his chum Paul Givan will hold that position. Givan, you'll remember, was the bright spark who cheerfully announced he was pulling the plug on funding for the Líofa Irish-language bursary and then was forced to do a humiliating U-turn. And to add to this stellar crew of Pootsy Picks are Mervyn Storey, another creationist, and Paul Frew – whom no-one could accuse of liberal thinking.

Quite apart from anything else, it is bad tactics. Surely Poots's advantage over Donaldson is that he is an MLA with experience of several ministries who could easily slip into the FM role. Unlike the Lagan Valley MP, who will have to rule from Westminster unless he gives up the seat he has cosily inhabited for more than two decades.

And if you're hoping to win the support of other MLAs, is it smart to make it known who you're favouring for departmental goodies? Not much strategic thinking on display here, is there?

So what's his big idea? Return the DUP to its fundamentalist, Free Presbyterian roots so as to hold on to those who might defect to Jimbo Allister's one-man band? Boycott north-south bodies and try to provoke Sinn Féin into bringing down the executive? And where does that lead?

How many of those young loyalists who were out rioting a few weeks ago give a stuff about same-sex marriage, abortion rights or gay conversion therapy? Should the new leader not be considering the number of voters who're turning towards the Alliance party? How will the fundamentalists appeal to this constituency?

Jeffrey might sound like the 'visionary' candidate by comparison to this kamikaze strategy from Poots. But his fingerprints are effectively all over the Northern Ireland Protocol, despite his protestations to the contrary. He was part of the Westminster gang who made it an inevitability because they rejected all other attempts at doing a softer Brexit deal with Theresa May. Instead they sucked up to the European Research Group loonies, who ditched them at the first opportunity.

However they might wish it away, the protocol is going nowhere, no matter what luminaries like Mervyn Gibson think. It took years of negotiation and was supported by all the member countries of the EU and the UK government. Both candidates are being disingenuous with their supporters in pretending otherwise. Instead they should be looking at ways to mitigate the restrictions and work on ways to ease the current hiccups in trade between GB and Northern Ireland.

They should also be telling unionists that Northern Ireland's position as part of the UK is still underpinned by an international agreement that won't change until a majority of people vote otherwise. So wind your neck in.

They can make Northern Ireland a workable, tolerant place that respects diversity of all kinds, or they can revert to type, circle the wagons and shout No Surrender from the sidelines.

It hasn't worked before but learning from the mistakes of the past has never been a strong point for the leaders of unionism.

* * *

IT WAS a return to water-cooler TV with fans avidly discussing the ins and outs of each eagerly awaited episode on social media. A record 12.5 million viewers tuned in to the last episode of Line of Duty. But Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the wee donkey, what a disappointment it was.

After six series of cliff-hangers, the deaths of leading characters, gruelling interviews, unexpected plot twists and Ted Hastings's particularly local expletives, the identity of the character known as 'H' was finally unmasked as the Brummie no-hoper, Ian Buckells.

They're fond of acronyms on LOD, but this anticlimax produced another. WTF.

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