THE SDLP’s astute and increasingly impressive South Belfast MLA Matthew O’Toole best described a new unionist plan for a resolution of the Protocol saga when he said it was “a fundamentally unserious document” replete with “unworkable fantasies”. The most fleeting glance at what’s essentially a hardline anti-Good Friday Agreement wish list shows that analysis to be on the money. 
The report has been authored by an unelectable loyalist blogger and an unheard-of, student-age ultra-Tory operative with zero history of involvement in politics here. It recommends entrenching the supremacy of the centuries-old Acts of Union, which is illustrative of the mindset of the authors. It argues that existing EU laws which pertain to the six counties can be kept, but only so long as they are transposed into UK law and – laughably – only as long as they mirror British law. And the customs conundrum, it posits, can be dealt with by way of self-declaration – a facile suggestion which has been brought up and shot down countless times.
The report is the work of two people who represent no-one, but it has received widespread coverage, mostly because one of the authors, Jamie Bryson, is believed to play a central role in advising DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson and in shaping the party’s anti-Protocol strategy. It is an embarrassing indictment of Mr Donaldson’s leadership that he has allowed his primacy in the campaign to overturn the Protocol to be hijacked in this way.
Elsewhere, the serious job of repairing the mess brought about by the DUP’s blind pursuance of a hard Brexit continued this week as British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly arrived in the North to speak to the parties about a deal he has struck with the EU on data-sharing (a meeting hit by an attendance spat). Labour leader Keir Starmer and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar are both slated to arrive here separately on Thursday for a round of talks with the parties. Meanwhile, in another key sign that a deal is on the cards, Sinn Féin northern leader Michelle O’Neill said she’d had a positive telephone conversation on Protocol progress with Tanáiste Micheál Martin. The unremitting rancour and bitterness that has been the hallmark of the coalition government’s relationship with Sinn Féin  has been set to the side as the prospect of progress looms larger, and that’s to be welcomed.
Mr Donaldson, meanwhile, also had a talk with the Tanáiste and later said that any restoration of Stormont can only come about on the back of an accommodation “built on solid foundations which are supported by unionists and nationalists”. It is deeply unfortunate that the DUP’s laudable commitment to cross-community harmony was nowhere to be seen when the party went all-in the disastrous Brexit project which was opposed by a vast majority of nationalists, but let’s hope sense has been seen. The mooted February date for a deal will be on the DUP leader before he knows it and the work of preparing his base must begin now – if it’s work he’s willing to do.