Northern Ireland news

ANALYSIS: Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's repeated threats to collapse the institutions show it was a bluff all along

Jeffrey Donaldson makes a key note speech on the Northern Ireland Protocol to senior DUP party members at the La Mon hotel in east Belfast. Picture by Peter Morrison/PA Wire.

THE modern history of unionism is one of painting itself into a corner only to perform a climbdown, either by brazening out the humiliation or using some semantic get-out clause.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement, Drumcree, power-sharing, and flying the flag at Belfast City Hall only on designated days are among the glaring examples of where the unionist leader of the time has thrown the toys out of the pram and warned of grave consequences, only to later limp back to the table.

Every time they leave and return their influence has diminished, yet seemingly this lesson is never learned.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who in two weeks' time will be marking six months as DUP leader, hasn't yet pressed the nuclear button but he has threatened to on numerous occasions.

It was 100 days ago, on September 9, that the Lagan Valley MP first said his party would quit Stormont "within weeks" if his demands over the protocol were not met.

He indicated that it could not be "business as usual” at Stormont if the north's place in the UK internal market was not restored while at the same time the British government was legislating on the cultural package that includes provisions for the Irish language.

The deadline for his demands to be acted on was November 1, a date that passed not with the collapse of the institutions but with the UVF hijacking and burning a bus in Newtownards.

In his defence the DUP can cite two developments – Westminster failing to legislate on the cultural package and ongoing negotiations between the EU and the British government, which are now expected to continue well into the new year.

However, rather than banking these as small victories that created breathing space, Sir Jeffrey continues to insist – including on Thursday of this week – that the institutions are not sustainable “in the absence of action to remove the Irish Sea border”.

Placing the onus as always on Brussels rather than the British government, he said that if the EU wished to protect the political institutions then “they must seize this opportunity”.

Failure to do so, the DUP leader said, “will lead to the inevitable consequences which I outlined on September 9”.

Sir Jeffrey has been accused by both nationalists and unionists of “crying wolf”, while his unfulfilled threats also have echoes his predecessor Ian Paisley's Grand Old Duke of York tactics.

When his threat was first made, relations between London and the EU were strained and deteriorating, the triggering of Article 16 looked a strong possibility.

But increasingly it looks like the DUP leader decided to issue his ultimatum anticipating an imminent crisis in the protocol that meant he never had to follow through on it.

As the rhetoric from Lord Frost has noticeably decreased, the DUP press office re-issuing the same empty threat only supports the thesis that it was always bluff.

The upshot 100 days on is that nobody's listening anymore.

Sir Jeffrey's credibility within unionism is shot, because he failed to gamble with what was a weak hand anyway.

As is the leader of unionism's wont, he's painted himself into a corner where he's now damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't. It begs the question once more, when will unionism learn make the important distinction between tactic and strategy?

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