Stormont may no longer be sustainable

It is increasingly clear that we are entering a defining period for our devolved institutions, with a realistic prospect that they will be permanently abandoned if the DUP carries out its bellicose threats of recent days.

There is genuine bewilderment among ordinary nationalists, unionists and the unaligned that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson could seriously propose suspending Stormont during a public health crisis of unprecedented proportions.

However, the DUP has been left with a stark choice between effectively admitting that it made a calamitous error over Brexit or sticking to a policy which is likely to leave it as a spent political force.

As Sir Jeffrey, assuming he does not make an embarrassing u-turn, cannot be prevented from withdrawing his ministers, the question then becomes whether attempting to revive the power-sharing arrangements is still a viable option.

Most voters would strongly prefer that locally elected politicians play a central role in bringing covid under control, as well as addressing the other key economic and social issues, but it may well be that Stormont has finally turned out to be unsustainable.

While mistakes have been made on all sides, a sequence of events is at work which can be traced back to the run-up to the 2016 referendum when prominent Brexit campaigners indicated firmly that the final break-up of the UK was a price worth paying to achieve EU withdrawal.

The DUP somehow failed to pick up on these signals and instead put its faith in the English nationalists led by Boris Johnson who now dominate the Conservative Party.

Progress at Stormont invariably required a delicate set of compromises by the main groups but, rather than operate within those confines, the DUP plainly gambled that its association with Mr Johnson would give it a decisive advantage.

It was another disastrous miscalculation, a conclusion Sir Jeffrey failed to dispute in his BBC interview yesterday, and the subsequent recriminations and abrupt changes of leadership have produced a series of opinion polls predicting electoral meltdown.

The other four parties represented in the power-sharing executive would much prefer to keep it in place but the DUP, having backed itself into a corner over the protocol negotiations, has embarked on a very different course.

If that is the position we face, then forgetting about devolution and concentrating on preparations for a border poll which was always going to be heavily influenced by Brexit will become the priority.

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