Make a wish. This is Shared Island Day. When everyone is on the same page. 

We will all be smiling if by 6.30pm this evening England troop off the Aviva Stadium a beaten docket. It would be the perfect send-off for CJ Stander, that most gracious of warriors, epitome of the New Irish who become more Irish than the Irish themselves. 

On one level, it is such an unfair contest. The visitors represent a country of 56 million citizens. The combined south-north number is less than seven million. 

There is a side in many of us, rooted in our history, the underdog streak, that thrives on the chance to do a number on the powerful neighbours. 

The rugby clash is extra special because the team in green includes representatives from Ulster. For one day only Arlene, Sammy, Nigel and Paisley Junior are rooting for the Island of Ireland coalition.

If the great power in the sky is in generous form, maybe She would give us a bounce of the ball - or a rub of the green.

O, how we could do with it. 

Relationships with the neighbouring island are at a low ebb. It would be sweet to remind them that sometimes size is not the defining factor. 

The victory tour

A week ago, Boris Johnson came to Northern Ireland for the first time since August 2020. He arrived with a 'standing on the red carpet' mindset like what his namesake, Martin Johnson, brought to Lansdowne Road when lining up to be greeted by President McAleese before the England-Ireland match in 2003. 

The Prime Minister’s first stop was with some men in fatigues at Belfast International Airport - ‘Lough Neagh International’, as Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary once used to disparage it.

The reason for that chat was soon explained by the tweet of Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, who said Armed Forces personnel will support the vaccination roll-out.

Boris quickly took a helicopter to Co Fermanagh and visited a vaccination centre, close to Arlene’s office, at the northwestern extremity of the United Kingdom.

If you were a nationalist who had voted for Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew in the last Westminster election, how would you feel as you waited for your jab, if Boris approached you, tie tucked into his shirt, offering an elbow bounce?

Arlene Foster will not settle for the stretching, reinterpreting or bending of the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

If you lived ten miles away in Co Cavan and you saw pictures of the huge Lakeland Forum Leisure Centre with teams of vaccinators preparing to inject a cohort of Nordie neighbours 20 years younger than you, how would you feel?

If you were the 101-year old woman in Co Sligo who commissioned a minibus taxi to transport her and her wheelchair to a GP practice to receive her precious injection, would you be bothered if characters in military uniforms offered to cross the border to come to your door with the service?

Team Boris had made their point to their domestic audience and to the world beyond it, EU included.

On the vaccine roll-out issue, the Covid-19 pandemic matter that is dominating all our lives, the UK is leading the charge. 

The Boris message to Brussels

The Downing Street spin machine has a policy of seeking to keep Boris away from local yokel media when on manoeuvres in case he gets sucked into some parish-pump sludge.

The practice with broadcasters is for someone from the Westminster lobby bubble to accompany the travelling Prime Minister and to put the questions on behalf of all - local, national and international.

The visiting ITV journalist given the role in Enniskillen did ask the Prime Minister about his government's recent decision to unilaterally extend grace periods for checks on goods and products coming from Britain to Northern Ireland. 

Boris responded with what a very deliberately chosen phrase - he described the actions as "lawful and right."

That was the sound bite of the day.

It said to the European Union, Ireland included, that the British government is not prepared to stand over the Northern Ireland Protocol element of the Brexit deal.

Brexit is the magic carpet that brought Boris Johnson to Downing Street and power.

London will no longer go along with how the arrangement has been affecting trade between Britain and Northern Ireland since 1 January.

Through his comment, Boris let Brussels know he was not unduly worried by the infringement procedure it had just announced. 

The sobering news for the British Prime Minister is the DUP leader he made great efforts to placate last week wants him to go further. 

Arlene Foster will not settle for the stretching, reinterpreting or bending of the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

She and the ad-hoc unionist alliance she currently fronts want it scrapped.

Put the EU-UK border on the island of Ireland

The significance of what's going on in Northern Ireland deserves to be stated in simple language.

The DUP has concluded that if there has to be a border, it should not be placed in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and another part of the UK.

If a border is required, it should be on the island of Ireland, where the UK meets the European Union.

Unionists have now worked themselves into a position where they say any significant change in the way trade was done with Great Britain before Brexit amounts to diluting their right to be British.

More and more in discussions, DUP members say: "if I cross over to Cavan to buy diesel, I use a different currency and I am visiting a jurisdiction with a different tax system, a different government and driving on roads with kilometre speed limits."

In theory the Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing included, struggles to co-exist with Brexit. In practice it is worse. It is a nightmare. The concepts pull in opposite directions

Arguments that featured during the tortuous Brexit negotiations have been rooted out of the DUP attic and are being aired again.

"We are not going to put any frontier posts or customs infrastructure on our side of the border but if the EU, or Ireland want to do it, let them fire ahead. That’s their business."

Brexit is the magic carpet that brought Boris Johnson to Downing Street and power. He and his party will never acknowledge the negative consequences and complications of the Brexit project that were not foreseen.

Boris will seek to have the EU, the other party in this political divorce, take the strain in any problems that emerge. That’s the pattern of Boris behaviour in his life to date.

Of the Northern Ireland political parties, the DUP are the only ones with clout in the current Downing Street set-up.

Yes, their brief period when their votes were required to keep Prime Minister Theresa May in power is over. The Conservatives now have an 80-seat majority in the 650 member parliament.

If Unionism sticks to its view that the Protocol must go, it is depending on the European Commission and EU member states to acquiesce.

And yes, Boris bypassed DUP reservations when he signed off on a Brexit deal with the EU last December. You couldn’t rule him out throwing them under a bigger bus, if circumstances require it in the future.

But for now it suits him and his administration to pay some heed to DUP needs and views.

The DUP MPs are friendly with a gang of the more vocal Tory Brexiteers. When annoyed, some of the DUP 8 can cut up rough and cause the Prime Minister or his colleagues embarrassment in House of Commons debates.

So at present Boris is definitely content to keep the DUP onside.

The Tories regard Sinn Féin’s 7 MP’s as political enemies and in terms of Westminster mathematics, irrelevant. They don’t take their seats, speak or vote in the House of Commons.

Boris isn’t bothered by the two SDLP members side, whose sister party, Labour, is currently near-neutered. The Alliance sole representative, Stephen Farry, poses no threat.

Holding the minority line in Stormont

The practical problem for the DUP is the only-Northern-Ireland-voice-that-counts status it currently enjoys with the Conservative government does not transfer across the Irish Sea into the Stormont Assembly.

The three unionist parties have formed an alliance of sorts around a policy of seeking to bin the Northern Ireland protocol.

But with 39 votes  - 28 DUP, 10 Ulster Unionists, one Traditional Unionist Voice - in a 90 member Assembly, they are a minority.

The Protocol row has poisoned politics in the Stormont Chamber. Dysfunction thrives. The list of those waiting for the power-sharing Executive to deliver on its promises grows. The queue includes victims of historical institutional abuse and victims of violence during the Troubles.

Important matters on hold include initiatives on infrastructure investment, the longest hospital waiting lists in the UK, abortion services and the promised reform of underused resources in the education service.

Some day soon the Irish language lobby will start asking about the commitments made when power-sharing was restored last year. When that pressure group builds up steam, it is a formidable force.

If Unionism sticks to its view that the Protocol must go, it is depending on the European Commission and EU member states to acquiesce.

It is difficult to see 27 member states concluding that at heart Boris is a decent sort, Northern Ireland is a special place and there really is no meaningful threat to the EU’s Single Market if it leaves the back door open on the island of Ireland.

If Brussels and London can’t agree and abide by long-term operational solutions, a more likely outcome is some EU member states may start looking down the table to the Irish delegation.

The pressure could come on Dublin to do whatever it takes to protect the EU’s Single Market.

That could involve relocating the kind of checks, currently proving unpopular at Northern Ireland’s ports, to where the UK meets the EU on the island of Ireland.

Passing the parcel to Micheál Martin

Micheál Martin dislikes rows. He is a compromiser by nature, an each-way better. He is entirely comfortable with his Shared Island strategy.

Nothing would please him more than to have stable North/South relationships and a new post-Brexit warm future with the island next door and its leader, Boris Johnson.

Influential forces suggest to him that Fianna Fáil’s political enemies are Sinn Féin, not any branch of unionism. They make the case that the Shinners are the ones looking to take Fianna Fáil Dáil seats. They warn the Taoiseach that Sinn Féin wants to bury Fianna Fáil and end a republican family row that has gone one for one hundred years.

Nowhere in Micheál Martin’s recent history is there evidence of an enthusiast pushing for a united Ireland or a border poll. Regularly he has stated that he is content to put his faith in the effective working of the Good Friday Agreement.

Up to now, it was the Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and his party colleague, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, who were the targets of unionist ire.

But Mr Martin will note that a former Fianna Fáil leader, Bertie Ahern, who led the Irish government in the Good Friday Agreement 1998 negotiations, is now talking openly about holding a Border Poll.

Under the Bertie plan, the referendum on Irish unity would be held in 2028 to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement signing.

Unionists might not believe him, but Bertie is throwing out that 2028 Poll possibility in the hope that it might take some of the heat out of current tensions.

Mayday signs for unionism

If the Protocol row is still simmering by summer’s end and if power-sharing hasn’t collapsed, matters will become even more fraught. Once the MLA’s return from holidays, the May 2022 Assembly election campaign will be up and running.

A very obvious question - will unionism run as one bloc or as happened before, will the DUP, UUP and TUV go their separate ways?

58-year-old Steve Aiken leads the Ulster Unionist Party. He served for 32 years in the Royal Navy. His CV tells he commanded two nuclear-powered submarines and he is sometimes known as "Submarine Steve".

He worked for a time as CEO of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce and was very briefly on the books of DCU in Dublin.

The party he fronts has been in decline for almost two decades. It no longer has a Westminster MP. It has 10 Stormont seats compared to the DUP’s 28. In the interests of unionism, might Steve Aiken be open to some sort of pact with the DUP in the 18 five-seater Assembly constituencies next year? Or does he prioritise protecting his party’s brand and space?

The TUV has just the one Stormont seat, held by its leader, Jim Allister. He has never managed to translate his personal popularity into additional Assembly membership. But if he ran the likes of former Labour MP Kate Hoey next time or if he attracted DUP defectors, he could increase his seat base.

Will Mr Allister be minded to build his own organisation or will he be part of a pact among unionists?

The most difficult unionist choices may fall to DUP leader Arlene Foster. Her party currently has one seat more than Sinn Féin - 28 to 27. If unionists run as three separate parties and the DUP loses ground to the UUP or the TUV, Arlene Foster could find the DUP in the No 2 position to Sinn Féin.

Alliance could add to its eight member representation at the expense of the DUP.

Nationalist voters, worked up over Brexit, could decide to transfer their loyalties from the SDLP to Sinn Féin in order to end the DUP’s largest party status. That is how the DUP’s Nigel Dodds lost his North Belfast Westminster seat in 2019.

Would Arlene Foster be willing to - indeed, would her party allow her to - participate in a power-sharing administration with Sinn Féin as the largest party and Sinn Féin's Michelle O’Neill as First Minister?

One nuanced change in the maths could see unionism questioning its commitment to the power-sharing model established by the Good Friday Agreement.

If unionists decided to run as a block to in order to maximise their support and counteract the Sinn Féin threat, the DUP would be linking up with TUV leader, Jim Allister.

A priority for him, stated many times, is to end the mandatory coalition model that has Sinn Féin in government. Mr Allister also believes the Northern Ireland protocol is an economic trojan horse to create a united Ireland.

Jim Allister would not contemplate compromising in the way that compromises have been used to keep power-sharing alive in Northern Ireland.

Smoke on the horizon

During his Northern Ireland visit, Boris Johnson gave no sense that he is concerned by what’s simmering. There is no evidence to suggest that the Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis and the team of advisors he has brought with him from London, are sounding alarm bells in London.

The European dimension of the shared participation in a bigger club that once helped British-Irish and North-South chemistry is no more. The British make it clear they are glad to be out of that arrangement. Pandemic and vaccine politics play into the centuries-old UK-Europe spleen. Boris Johnson’s new priorities include Chinese investment and capital.

The London-Dublin relationship is in poor shape. The ties run too deep to allow time-limited trends do lasting damage. But for the moment there is a problem. Reminiscent of the early 80s is how one who knows described it.

That’s why what happened in the virtual Trans-Atlantic exchanges on Saint Patrick’s Day was so significant.

For a second successive year the Irish Government and the all-island entourage it likes to bring to Washington on Saint Patrick’s Day were housebound.

There was the very real possibility that the new Biden administration might remain so broad brush in its virtual engagements that Boris Johnson’s government would take succour from vagueness.

But President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris made clear the policy of the new administration in their public engagements with Micheál Martin, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill.

The two White House principals made reference to the importance of the Northern Ireland protocol as well as to the Good Friday Agreement.

If Boris Johnson and his administration believe the UK’s relative importance as a player in world matters might gain it Northern Ireland protocol wiggle room in Washington, the thesis hit a wall.

The US message, given politely but firmly, was sort out the problems through negotiations and compromise. But that’s easier said than done.

Returning to the well again

If Martin McGuinness was alive today, he would be watching the Ireland-England rugby match. He enjoyed most sports, cricket included.

Tomorrow, 21 March, is the fourth anniversary of his death. We will never know the full details of his significant IRA activity. But for the last two decades of his life, he tried to make politics work in Northern Ireland.

He headed up power-sharing administrations with three different DUP leaders. Before losing his battle with a relentless version of cancer, he chose Michelle O’Neill to succeed him.

She and Arlene Foster argue, they fall out, they stop talking to each other and then after a period of silence they try, one more time, to build a version of a working relationship. It is really difficult because on so many levels the represent opposites.

Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol bring those tensions to a whole new level.

In theory the Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing included, struggles to co-exist with Brexit. In practice it is worse. It is a nightmare. The concepts pull in opposite directions. It is like a relationship that is faithful and promiscuous.

Talk to the Lisburn businessman who over the years made a living importing coffee products from Great Britain. The Northern Ireland protocol imposes considerable form-filling responsibilities on him - and expense. Some of his GB suppliers now say doing business with him is not worth the effort. Such on-the-ground complaints from constituents are driving unionist politicians to insist the Protocol must go in its entirety.

By pushing their ‘Ulster Says No’ absolutist position, they may be hastening the day of a Border Poll. They may be undermining their own future.

And while the concept of a United Ireland may make for interesting opinion polls and infotainment programmes, the truth is sobering.

It is questionable if the circumstances to deliver a soft-landing united Ireland and the politicians to oversee it currently exist. Given the reaction of unionism and loyalism to customs checks at Northern Ireland ports, imagine how would they would respond to being voted out of the United Kingdom?

Northern Ireland has no long term future saying No. And it has currently lost the capacity to say Yes.

It was always going to be the conundrum, the puzzle, the victim at the heart of Brexit.

That's what has happened.

The undeniable truth - the blue sky factor one turns to in bleak times - is that politics and politicians once found the means to stop the killing.

They will have to return to the well again.