The DUP’s plan to slink back to Stormont looks neat on paper. Whether it survives contact with reality is another matter.
The gist of the plan is simple: wait for likely fudges on the protocol, spin them as removing the sea border within the UK, claim credit for obtaining those changes through boycotting Stormont, then go back to the office in triumph and start rebuilding the party’s support.
Objections to a Sinn Féin First Minister have already evaporated. Focusing on the protocol helps everyone forget the DUP had refused to confirm it would nominate a Deputy First Minister to serve alongside Michelle O’Neill, as did the UUP.
Stopping republicans holding the top job was used to rally unionist voters. It also rallied voters to Sinn Féin but the strategic geniuses of unionism considered that unavoidable. Once the votes were counted this tactic had served its purpose and DUP representatives dropped all pretence of not returning to the executive because Sinn Féin is the largest party.
Although the symbolic power of Sinn Féin's victory is genuine, it is hardly surprising after a year of opinion polls predicting it
The DUP presented the election as a last chance to secure the maximum number of anti-protocol assembly members. Perversely, focusing on immediate changes to the protocol helps everyone forget about that as well.
Recent changes to Stormont’s rules mean the outgoing executive can remain in caretaker form for up to nine months before another election, while the new assembly can convene next week if Sinn Féin and the DUP nominate a speaker. This would answer criticism of leaving Northern Ireland ungoverned.
Waiting for something to turn up on the protocol is credible. The DUP has been widely mocked, including by other unionists, for depending again on Boris Johnson riding to its rescue. However, the protocol is impractical to implement as agreed and this is creating new facts on the ground that London and Brussels have to address.
The real flaw in the DUP’s plan is taking the patience of Northern Ireland for granted.
How long can the second largest party at Stormont put devolution on hold for what everyone knows is a face-saving exercise?
Stormont has ticked over in caretaker mode since February, when the DUP withdrew its First Minister Paul Givan. Continuing this limbo after an election feels significantly less legitimate and could quickly be seen as gratuitous, with healthcare collapsing and the cost of living soaring.
Caretaker ministers cannot take major or complex decisions, pass budgets or agree a programme for government. A £300 million sum left unspent due to Givan’s resignation featured in every other party’s election campaign and has become totemic of DUP waste and arrogance, recalling how the phrase “cash for ash” summed up the Renewable Heat Incentive.
Further authority has been sapped from the caretaker cabinet by the changed make-up of the assembly. The SDLP is no longer large enough to qualify for the executive yet will retain the Department for Infrastructure and stranger still must appoint a new minister as its deputy leader Nichola Mallon, the incumbent, has lost her seat.
Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin president, said unionists “should not be scared” by her party topping the poll. There is no sign they are, or ever were – otherwise the DUP might have enjoyed more success with its scare stories about a republican First Minister and a “divisive Border poll”.
The sky has clearly not fallen in over Thursday’s results. Although the symbolic power of Sinn Féin’s victory is genuine, it is hardly surprising after a year of opinion polls predicting it. O’Neill as First Minister is an idea similarly priced in, helped by Givan’s absence.
Unlike the last Stormont collapse, Northern Ireland can call time on this limbo when public patience snaps
The seven percentage point fall in the DUP’s vote, most of it picked up by the TUV, indicates not fear but anger – at the DUP. The TUV’s inability to translate this into seats was largely down to bad luck but it still casts a pall of failure over the party and limits the prospects of a hardline turn in unionist politics.
The first attempt to form a new executive takes place this week. Even most DUP supporters will struggle to tell themselves they are not witnessing a circus. Everyone else will be deeply frustrated, amid a clamour from London, Dublin, Brussels and Washington to get on with it. The absurdity will increase if DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson returns to Westminster, as expected, putting a co-opted colleague into his assembly seat until devolution returns.
Unlike the last Stormont collapse, Northern Ireland can call time on this limbo when public patience snaps. The new rules give the assembly a cross-community vote every six weeks to end caretaker mode and move straight to an election within three months.
If unionists will not pass such a vote, nationalists can trigger an election anyway by withdrawing their caretaker ministers.
Unlike the 2024 protocol vote, interest in this is going to grow. The DUP’s plan has a shelf-life of weeks.