The DUP will have its day out in Westminster next week. The party will get debating time in the House of Commons on Monday. It flows from the DUP petition, seeking the triggering of Article 16, which attracted the necessary 100,000 signatures.
The DUP hopes its public campaign will pressurise the British government to abandon the Northern Ireland Protocol element of its Brexit deal with the EU.
DUP leader Arlene Foster wants Boris Johnson to respond to the concerns of Northern Ireland unionists. She suggests the 'land border in the Irish Sea', created by the Protocol effectively makes Northern Ireland’s population second-class citizens of the United Kingdom.
Grace periods are in place to allow ‘settling in time’ before some further Protocol-related measures kick in. The DUP leader says when those new arrangements come into force and Northern Ireland is subjected to more trade restrictions that don’t apply in Britain, unionist disquiet will further increase.
The DUP’s immediate aim is to put the British prime minister under pressure at Westminster.
Mrs Foster said yesterday "as you know, I don’t negotiate on behalf of the United Kingdom government. That’s left to the prime minister of the day. He decided that he was going to put us into this situation and to cause us these difficulties in the internal market of the United Kingdom. Therefore it is up to him to sort this out. He promised us unfettered access from Great Britain into Northern Ireland and he cannot, at any level, say that is what is achieved at present."
The DUP's difficulty is it is attempting to make their case in a Northern Ireland where the majority of voters opposed Brexit and in a Stormont where they are in a minority position.
On the Northern Ireland Protocol issue their 27 Assembly members have the support of the ten Ulster Unionists and the one Traditional Unionist Voice representative, Jim Allister. But the Sinn Féin 26, SDLP 12, Alliance seven and Green party alliance can easily outvote them in the 90-member Assembly.
It is also clear that in Westminster, the DUP’s clout is significantly reduced.
When Theresa May was prime minister, her Conservative government required DUP support to stay in power. But the current prime minister Boris Johnson has the numbers to carry on comfortably without DUP backing.
The Unionist politicians, opposed to the Protocol, cite examples of how the consequences of the Protocol are causing discontent.
Issues they say irk them include:
- A pet passport required to bring a pet from Britain to Northern Ireland
- A growing range of products that Northern Ireland residents can no longer order online from Britain
- The possibility that soon, British sausages being sent to Northern Ireland will require an export certificate and other expensive and time-consuming paperwork.
Peter Robinson, a former DUP leader, recently suggested that if unionist discontent grows, the opinion of withdrawing from the Assembly might be considered.
But the collapse of power-sharing could, in time, lead to fresh elections, followed by negotiations.
And the DUP, the only major party to support Brexit, could find itself under pressure from the right and left in any Northern Ireland Protocol-linked election. It is also the established practice that government-forming negotiations require compromise and concession.
Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission Vice-President, and British Cabinet Minister Michael Gove, are the key figures in EU-UK discussions about the Northern Ireland Protocol. Simon Coveney, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, has regular interactions and a good working relationship with them.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has stated a number of times in recent days that he is conscious of disquiet in the unionist community about the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol. In the Assembly, the pro-Protocol parties all say there are issues that require attention and change.
There has been no hint or whisper from London, Brussels or Dublin that the contentious protocol will be abandoned. It was clear there was no appetite for unpicking an important element of a Treaty that took years to negotiate.
That was the very obvious message in the joint statement Michael Gove and Maros Sefcovic issued after they met in London last week.
It included the sentence "intensify the work of the Specialised Committee on the Protocol in order to address all outstanding issues, with the shared objective to find workable solutions on the ground"
Such carefully-crafted language requires time and thought. It is likely the statement was agreed and nailed down before the European Commission Vice President departed from Brussels for his London meeting.
It seemed Gove and his EU counterpart were in agreement that they would work towards a series of amended arrangements, minus the most provocative and most impractical elements of the Protocol.
But then last night came confirmation of a new presence in the drama. From stage left, enter Lord Frost, Boris Johnson’s former Brexit negotiator, who would be a long time waiting for a room at any Brussels inn.
Downing Street’s official line is that Lord Frost will seek to maximise post-Brexit trading opportunities when he becomes a full cabinet member next month.
In theory Michael Gove will be his line manager but Lord Frost will replace Mr Gove as the co-chair of the committee charged with implementing the Brexit withdrawal deal.
It was often said that David Frost was close to Dominic Cummings, who drove the Brexit campaign that brought Boris Johnson to power and was the most influential force in Downing Street until he ran out of road there.
As a reward for his Brexit exertions, Lord Frost seemed to be on course for the UK’s National Security Adviser role but last month that plum slipped past. There was talk of his discontent over lack of recognition for his labours and sacrifices. Now, Boris has brought him back to prominence.
Keep an eye on him. Unionists will feel they have a kindred spirit on the pitch.