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Newton Emerson: Pride before fall for the blustering DUP

Collapse of Stormont would cause real damage for which party could be punished at the polls

Paul Givan, the DUP First Minister, has been widely condemned for saying it is "inevitable" Stormont will collapse if the Northern Ireland protocol does not have "collective buy-in from everyone in the community".

Nationalists and other unionists are exhausted by the DUP's threats to devolution. Alliance leader Naomi Long called it "frankly embarrassing" and "sabre rattling".

Closer inspection of Givan's comments, in a BBC interview on Monday, reveal he was playing the threat down by moving from the active to the passive voice. Rather than saying his party would "go to the country", to quote DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, Givan framed collapse as a sort of natural disaster that must regrettably occur, perhaps in the medium term, if the protocol saps Stormont's cross-community support.

Repeated crises have led to single-year budgets since 2013, making long-term planning impossible

The First Minister was clear he wants the institution to work. Just as tellingly, the DUP is vague on how it wants the protocol to work: its plan is to spin whatever mitigations emerge from UK-EU talks as ‘removing the sea border’, then claim DUP threats helped bring this about.

Hence the need to keep issuing threats, even if downgraded to embarrassing warnings.

Givan has to extend the warnings to the medium term because time is running out. EU-UK talks are stretching into February and Stormont rises at the end of March for an election in early May.

If the DUP walks out now, Stormont would collapse after one week but the northern secretary would be within his powers to stick to the May election date. The DUP would be exposed as a mere spectator in protocol negotiations, powerless even to set the agenda for devolution.

Yet collapse would still cause real damage, for which the party could be punished at the polls. Stormont has been unusually productive in recent months as it rushes to complete important legislation before the end of its mandate. All that work would be squandered by a collapse as bills in progress would expire. The pointless demise of legislation on climate change, organ donation and private tenancies could play badly with the electorate.

Stormont is also hurrying to complete its first multi-year budget in almost a decade. Repeated crises have led to single-year budgets since 2013, making long-term planning impossible. Even before the epidemic, health service managers said restoring multi-year budgets was their top priority, more important than the level of funding itself.

The budget must be in place by the end of the public sector’s financial year on the final day of March, which means signing it off by mid-March. If the DUP scuppers this at the last moment for the sake of a few weeks of grandstanding, it will be unforgivable and likely to cut through with voters.

Less plausible

Donaldson was scarcely believed when he first threatened to walk out over the protocol last September, and the threat has only become less plausible since.

However, there is clearly a chance of the DUP staging a last-minute, technical collapse as a face-saving measure. Desperate scheming is going on inside the party to find some way of shoring up its bluster before the election.

Last month, Donaldson said the DUP could walk out while leaving ministers in place to deal with the epidemic. This recalled the so-called 'hokey cokey' of rotating resignations the former DUP leader Peter Robinson staged in 2015, in a hollow protest over two IRA-linked murders.

Just before Christmas, Givan revealed the DUP’s election manifesto will set tests the protocol must meet before the party returns to government. This would allow it to campaign on its threat to quit, instead of having to climb down.

Power-sharing prevents the DUP being forced into opposition, although it can choose that role if ceases to be the largest unionist party

On Tuesday, Radio Ulster reported the DUP will bring a vote to the executive this month to end sea border checks. This is aimed at bouncing the UUP into voting against the checks. The smaller unionist party has lambasted the DUP's threats to devolution, warning even a brief collapse will do significant harm to Northern Ireland and the union.

The DUP thinks it can neutralise this criticism by forcing its rival onto the same anti-protocol pitch. However, the UUP can just repeat its usual riposte that the protocol happened under the DUP’s watch.

Although these manoeuvres prove the DUP is blustering, the haplessness of it all means the party may still feel it has to stage a theatrical strop before the election, purely to tell voters it has done something.

How much easier it would be if the DUP could put its Brexit mistakes behind it the way parties do in normal parliamentary systems – by a spell in opposition and a clear-out at the top.

Power-sharing prevents the DUP being forced into opposition, although it can choose that role if ceases to be the largest unionist party.

But having the same faces at the top and behind the scenes, despite last year’s leadership crisis, is its own fault entirely. Many DUP supporters might ascribe it to the sin of pride.