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Analysis: When you look at how we got here, the DUP's claims of unfair treatment begin to unravel

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is staying at Westminster

AT face value it’s perhaps possible to sympathise with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP’s position. Unionism, which in the new assembly represents between 41-42 per cent of seats, is unhappy with the protocol and feels it’s being bullied by those who once railed against majority rule. However, the picture is far more nuanced than that, while the backstory suggests much of the harm is self-inflicted.

It’s also worth noting that despite unionism’s much-cited united opposition to the protocol, there’s no consistency on how it should be dealt with. How much it preoccupies supporters of the UUP, DUP and TUV is probably a sliding scale, whereby concern grows the further you move from the centre ground. It likely corresponds with views on power-sharing generally.

There are also divergent opinions on where the problems lie.

The economic impact of the Irish Sea border is difficult to quantify but most, if not all, of the figures being bandied about by anti-protocol unionists on the airwaves or from the backs of lorries at protests are deliberately inflated and/or completely unverifiable. Meanwhile, the sudden surge in affection for the likes of Lincolnshire sausages, Brazilian pork and Thai curry ready meals, appears to defy previous claims about preferences for superior quality, locally-produced food.

Official statistics published yesterday show the north’s economy outperformed Britain, thanks to the advantages of trading with the EU bloc. But of course once its economic arguments are debunked, the DUP will shift the goalposts and insist that Northern Ireland’s constitutional status is being undermined and the Good Friday Agreement’s consent mechanism overridden. Again, if you’d come to this issue fresh, you may think there’s merit in what’s being argued by the DUP, despite the party never having been a supporter of the 1998 accord.

It’s when you walk backwards that the DUP’s arguments begin to unravel. For the past six years, the party has been on the wrong side of every decision that chimes with its stated aim of ‘doing what’s right for Northern Ireland’. From supporting Brexit to refusing to re-enter an executive, its motivation has always been about narrow ideology or self-preservation rather than the common good. Few things better represent the expediency of the DUP’s short-term tactics than Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s decision to remain at Westminster, having all but hoodwinked the Lagan Valley electorate.

With its fellow travellers in the European Research Group, the DUP boarded a train whose ultimate destination is economic regression and international isolation. Common sense has told the party to disembark at various junctures yet fear of a jeering Jim Allister makes it sit tight, forlornly hoping that the next stop brings salvation.

The final election result reflected kindly on Sir Jeffrey and his cause is being helped at the moment by encouraging noises from the Tories, though mostly in unattributable briefings or dressed up in ambiguous language. But we’ve been hearing threats to ditch the protocol for the past 18 months and every time they’ve been nothing more than bluster. They’re either Foreign Secretary Liz Truss going on manoeuvres or designed to distract from a domestic mess Boris Johnson finds himself in. Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results is a sign of insanity, Albert Einstein said, yet the DUP continues to put itself at the mercy of the Tories, knowing full well that they’re being strung along by a prime minister with an unequalled reputation for untrustworthiness.

The trade war and international ostracisation that would result from unilateral action on the protocol are not what the British government wants, and eventually, like the DUP, it will end up back at the negotiating table looking for a landing area that can be sold to supporters.

The path of protest for the DUP is one of diminishing returns and the sooner it acclimatises itself to Stormont’s new political reality and returns to the executive, the sooner it can start doing the ‘right thing for Northern Ireland’. Until then, its efforts to thwart the return of the assembly and restoration of the executive look like self-serving tactics that will ultimately fail to deliver its objectives.

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