IT depends on who you ask. If you aim your question at the average republican, they’ll probably say the DUP are refusing to help form an Executive because the very thought of working as Deputy First Minister alongside a Sinn Féin First Minister would bring them out in hives.

You can see why a republican might view the DUP this way. In election after election, the DUP have warned their electorate that if every Norman and Sadie doesn’t turn out on the day and vote DUP, then there’s the appalling vista of Martin McGuinness or some other such republican bogeyman/woman getting to be First Minister.

 

They didn’t have to say why this would be  an appalling vista but they didn’t need to: most  DUP followers took in the idea of dominance with their mother’s milk. What’s the good in a Protestant state for a Protestant people if you have to call yourself Deputy  while a Fenian First Minister swanks around?  

If, on the other hand,  you ask a DUP politician why they’re not helping form an Executive, they’ll tell you it’s not political status at all, it’s the Protocol, stupid. The Protocol puts NEI on a different footing from the rest of the UK and that is constitutionally weakening for the Province. That’s why the DUP can’t return to Stormont until the Protocol is fixed.  

Sometimes I feel sympathy for the DUP – okay, it’s not deep and it doesn’t last long, but it is sympathy. Because all the signposts are pointing towards a border poll and the ultimate reunification of Ireland, which, were it achieved, would leave unionists as rebels without a cause.

If the stateen you are loyal to has disappeared, if there’s a reunited Ireland, what would be the point of unionist parties?  That’s a sharp-edged question and one to which pro-united Irelanders still haven’t found a convincing answer.  And while the Protocol is not a central threat to the place of NEI within the  UK, it is indeed another signpost as to which way things are going.  

But there’s a far bigger danger to the union, of which the DUP and unionism generally seems unaware: that nationalists and republicans  will develop friendship fatigue. The hand of cooperation and reconciliation can only be offered for a limited time. Eventually, nationalists and republicans will grow weary and say “Aw, the hell with this!” and give up on Stormont.

Now that would be a threat to the union.  A year ago, Liverpool University’s Social Market Research Unit  conducted an opinion poll. It found that one in every eight unionists thought of the Protocol as their No.1 problem, and 40 per cent of them said that if the EU was offering “mitigations” to the sea border that would suffice for them.    

Unionist politicians, however, are less open to solutions. Since the days of Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin has tried to work  with them and to do so in a respectful way. The unionist response? Maybe you remember Seb Coe and Steve Ovett at the Moscow Olympics.  

As they stood on the podium receiving their medals, gold medallist Ovett offered a congratulatory handshake to silver medallist Coe.   According to the writer Clive James, Coe received the hand from Ovett as though it were a turd. So too have many unionist politicians responded to the offered hand of republicans.  

So you could understand if republicans were to turn their back on Stormont and focus solely on  preparation for a border poll.  This preparation will require extended conversations, multiple invitations, and laser-like focus.  You can’t do that if you’re trying to humour Jeffrey Donaldson, not to mention the shadowy figures who warn of “dire consequences” if everything isn’t arranged to suit them.  

Sorry, guys.  We all would like to see Stormont working properly, but if you insist on sticking your fingers in your ears and chanting “No Protocol!” there’s a real danger that nationalism will shrug and walk away. Enough is enough.