Watching Jeffrey Donaldson turn the DUP back towards accepting the protocol is an absurd and impressive spectacle.
Difficult though it may to believe, given all that has happened since, it is only 10 months since the party's position was that the UK's overall Brexit deal, protocol included, offered a "gateway of opportunity" for Northern Ireland.
Two DUP leaders later, Donaldson’s only plan has been to return to that stance. Like the rest of unionism, he is a bystander in negotiations between London and Brussels and will simply have to sell whatever mitigations emerge. He is also rapidly running out of time. Negotiations seem set to stretch into the new year and Stormont effectively dissolves at the end of March for a May election. Let there be no cliches about turning a tanker around. Donaldson needs to find the handbrake on a jetski.
Yet performing an absurd U-turn is an impressive skill, rare enough in politics, let alone in unionism. The more shameless the manoeuvring the better if it prepares the public for the final reversal.
There is a bizarre disconnect between the businesslike atmosphere in the Assembly and the threat of collapse still lingering in public perception
There is growing awareness of the DUP’s semantic distinction between the protocol and “the sea border”. The louder Donaldson calls for the sea border to go, the clearer it is he accepts the protocol is here to stay. The distinction has been stepped up in recent weeks into a disciplined party line, reported knowingly in the press, while still not openly confronted. It stakes out the only plausible landing zone for the whole of Northern Ireland, as almost everyone agrees there should be as few checks as possible across the Irish Sea, based on assessing real risk to the EU single market. That was the EU’s stated position as recently as 12 months ago. Cynical U-turns are not just for unionists.
Last Saturday, the Orange Order opened its halls for all unionists to sign a petition demanding "the protocol" in its entirety be "rejected and replaced". This was a copy of an online petition signed by all unionist party leaders, including Donaldson, at the end of September.
Although Donaldson endorsed the Orange Order petition, he issued a statement to party members the same day saying only that the DUP is “committed to removal of the Irish Sea border”.
There was no mention of withdrawing from Stormont, as Donaldson had vowed to do “by November” if the protocol was not rewritten or suspended. That deadline, which the DUP was still insisting on five weeks ago, has lapsed unremarked. Stormont is now presumed to be stable until next May’s election – there is a bizarre disconnect between the businesslike atmosphere in the Assembly and the threat of collapse still lingering in public perception.
Donaldson has also distanced himself from a high-profile legal challenge to the protocol, initiated with the support of all the main unionist parties. When the case was heard in June, the High Court rejected the unionist claim the protocol was unconstitutional. Donaldson rejected that verdict in turn, saying the findings confirmed "the protocol damages our constitutional position" with "potential consequences for the future stability of political institutions".
The case was back in court this week for an appeal but the DUP was nowhere to be seen and Donaldson had no comment to make. TUV leader Jim Allister was left to engage in arcane legal wrangling over "the constitution", which seems oddly foreign to a British person, like horse-meat and siestas. The whole point of our "unwritten" constitution is that we do not get bogged down in these self-indulgent arguments.
The protocol's impact is unclear, not least because much of the sea border is still in grace periods – and even exporters need imports from Britain
Loyalists are well aware of what Donaldson is up to and have begun calling him out. To see this as solely a problem for the DUP leader is to misunderstand that a rapid U-turn has to be blatant and unacknowledged at this stage, so the acknowledgment will be less of a shock.
Trying to hold the line just invites the appearance of defeat, as loyalism discovered last week. Dr John Kyle, a prominent member of the loyalist-linked Progressive Unionist Party, said the protocol could have "unique advantages" for Northern Ireland if the sea border was minimised. Two weeks before, his party had withdrawn support for the Belfast Agreement over the protocol.
A great gift landed in Donaldson’s lap this Monday when the Financial Times claimed Northern Ireland is outperforming every other UK region thanks to its unique dual-market access. Although the story was widely repeated, it was incorrect. Northern Ireland is outperforming Scotland and Wales on like-for-like figures but is behind England. The protocol’s impact is unclear, not least because much of the sea border is still in grace periods – and even exporters need imports from Britain.
However, accuracy and complexity are beside the point for Donaldson. He just needs it to be believed, and ideally spread by others. It steers everyone towards the landing zone of a protocol with sea border mitigation. The DUP’s wheels are down already.