Northern Ireland requires an Executive if its government is to be effective, since the former is integral to the Belfast Agreement, and to the political architecture that it established.  This executive has not been in place for most of the last five years. Its absence leaves a gap which republican and loyalist paramilitaries can exploit – and which leaves a party linked to the first, Sinn Fein, as a gathering force in opposition.

This has implications for the Irish Republic, where the party is also on the rise.  The main aim of the talks between the UK and the EU about the Northern Ireland Protocol must therefore to be to get the Democratic Unionist Party back into government – in which it is refusing to serve precisely because of the trade barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that the Protocol has thrown up.

Furthermore, Joe Biden wants a settlement, so there must be one – preferably by April 10, the Belfast Agreement’s 25th anniversary.  Democrat presidents take a special interest in Northern Ireland because of the relationship between their party and the Irish-American vote.  So just as Bill Clinton helped to create the Agreement, so Biden is set on fixing the Protocol.  Rishi Sunak’s government is therefore set on a solution as soon as possible.

So far, so conventional – but I wonder if this reading provides an accurate snapshot of the political landscape.  Downing Street’s official line is that deadlines can be a hindrance rather than a help when it comes to negotiations.  Perhaps it is thinking of the Brexit talks when it says so, or those those that took place before Northern Ireland’s succession of agreements: the Belfast, St Andrews, Stormont House and Fresh Start ones.  During some of them, deadlines came and went.

Or it may be that progress in the negotiations is being kept under wraps, and Number Ten simply doesn’t want to declare its hand.  But even if that isn’t the case, I wonder if the conventional view is right.  Obviously, it’s a bad thing for Northern Ireland to be left with parts of the Agreement in effective suspension, at least until or unless its people settle on a replacement.  But it’s not necessarily in Rishi Sunak’s interest for a full negotiating settlement to be reached.

For as Henry Hill wrote on this site late last year, the EU has given no sign that it’s willing to accept changes to the Protocol’s text – and in particular, to those that set out the role within its framework of the European Court of Justice.  Perhaps the negotiations have are finding some creative way of leaving the text intact, amending the role of the court in practice, and so squaring the Democratic Unionist Party and the European Research Group.  How likely do you think that is?

For even were Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, willing to accept such a fudge – and I’m not suggesting that he would be – he would have his Parliamentary colleagues to think of.  And just as he will be looking over his shoulder at them, so they will be looking over theirs at DUP members.  The history of Northern Ireland unionists is marked by leaders who sought accommodation being brought down by others that didn’t (at least at time time): think Brian Faulkner, think David Trimble.

While the DUP opposed the Protocol at the time, all but two Conservative MPs, Owen Paterson and John Redwood, voted for the Withdrawal Agreement of which it was a part – that’s to say, Boris Johnson’s version, not Theresa May’s.  David Frost has set out the reasons why the Johnson Government agreed the Protocol in its present form with a heavy heart.  He also argues that it now breaches the Belfast Agreement itself.

Roderick Crawford, now of Policy Exchange, has explained the rationale for this view in a series of articles on ConservativeHome – and it is driving force behind the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which “aims to fix parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, restore stability and protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement”.  The four “important areas” in which it would “allow the government to address the practical problems the Protocol has created” include “democratic governance issues”.

Whatever one thinks of Frost’s arguments and the Bill itself, it’s clear that some Conservative MPs, including ERG members, have a bad conscience about the Protocol.  After all, the deal which replaced Theresa May’s, and of which it was part, won more Brexit freedoms for Great Britain at the cost of agreeing fewer for Northern Ireland (than for the rest of the UK, that is).  So when push came to shove, most Tory MPs, in backing it, behaved less like Unionists than English nationalists.

So no wonder leading lights in the ERG have since, like Frost, campaigned to change the Protocol he negotiated.  The Bill is partly a consequence, and any Protocol deal which left the role of the Court unchanged would thus be opposed not only by the DUP, but the ERG too.  Some claim that it’s no longer the force in Parliament that it was – and please note that its former Chairman, Steve Baker, is now a Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office.

Perhaps it is and perhaps it isn’t.  But either way, another element will be part of Downing Street’s calculations: Johnson himself.  In my view, it would be wide of the mark to suggest that, in opposing a Protocol settlement, he would be aiming to bring Sunak down and put himself back in.  I suspect that he himself is not set on standing in a Conservative leadership election this year should one arise – any more than he stood in the second one last year.

But Johnson, like Frost, will not have been happy about having been put in a negotiating corner, as he sees it, by the legacy of May’s negotiation and the truculence of the 2017-19 Parliament, with its Letwin amendment, its Benn Act, its measures to  prevent No Deal.  The former Prime Minister is frequently represented as man with no conscience.  But the difference between the unionist rhetoric he delivered at a DUP conference and the Protocol itself will rankle.

As Number Ten looks ahead, it must see the possibility of a Sunak government becalmed, Johnson in revolt, difficult local elections ahead – and goodness knows what else going on at the time (as I write, Downing Street has not closed down the controversy about Nadhim Zahawi, and that about Johnson himself, his financial affairs, Richard Sharp and the BBC still rages).  These are stones that could set off an avalanche: that’s to say, heaven help us, another leadership ballot.

Sunak’s strategy to date appears to be Lynton Crosby’s in 2015 as repurposed by Isaac Levido for now.  That’s to say, set out priorities, stick to them – and junk nearly everything else.  So it is that the Prime Minister has reached compromises with Tory backbenchers over housing, onshore wind, online harms, trans conversion therapy – and more.  This plan is not consistent with a deal on the Protocol that risks a revolt.

The logic of the situation suggests eased relations with the EU and a few technical tweaks to customs processes.  Maybe that’s enough for a joint announcement and a Biden visit, while the Bill’s completion is delayed – and the clauses that would address “democratic governance” never moved.  This plan may not happen and might not work.  But Sunak is kicking many cans down the long road to the next election, and one more wouldn’t make much difference.  Unless you live in Northern Ireland, that is.

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