THE Assembly election did what it was widely predicted to do and produced a Sinn Féin First Minister in Michelle O’Neill. Or at least it may do if DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson can get out of the bind in which he finds himself.
When the bluster and the spin are ignored and the cold facts and figures are analysed, Mr Donaldson has secured for his party what by any objective analysis can only be described as a stunning reversal. In his first election as leader, he has taken a 1,200 first preference vote majority over Sinn Féin in 2017 and turned it into a 66,500 deficit. His attempt to present the fact that the total unionist vote remains narrowly ahead of the total nationalist vote as a vindication is as lame as it is predictable. And it won’t wash.

Two-thirds of MLAs who are chomping at the bit to get back to work in a fully functioning Executie and do what they are paid to do are also in favour of the Protocol

Mr Donaldson’s status as the leader of unionism has been seriously compromised by falling so far behind Sinn Féin and he now finds himself facing a slew of challenges with no indication that he has any real idea of how to deal with them. Two-thirds of the MLAs in Stormont want to get back to work. They want a functioning Executive which will expeditiously release the £300 million unspent thanks to his collapsing of the Executive and now his refusal to reinstate it. They want that money put in the pockets and purses of those people who are suffering most acutely from the cost of living crisis and the new intake has an appetite and enthusiasm for tackling the big-ticket issues such as health and education.
But they are prevented from doing so by a man who has disastrously aligned himself to the raucous aggression of the self-styled elected and unelected leaders of the loyalist anti-Protocol protests. The protests that Mr Donaldson attended were effectively party political broadcasts for TUV leader Jim Allister. Embarrassingly modest in size they may have been given the organisers’ grandiose claims of virtually unanimous unionist support, but they were well covered by the media and any casual observer could reach no conclusion other than that the DUP leader was the support act for the TUV main attraction. And that inverted power dynamic duly took effect as Mr Donaldson surrendered a lead over Sinn Féin while Mr Allister trebled his vote (while at the same time achieving a feat of stunning ineptitude in failing to bring a single colleague to Stormont with him). And with the TUV emboldened by their hefty vote increase, what tiny room there was for Mr Donaldson to act decisively without fear of criticism by Mr Allister has all but disappeared.
Two-thirds of MLAs who are chomping at the bit to get back to work in a fully functioning Executie and do what they are paid to do are also in favour of the Protocol – some are cooler on it than others, but Sinn Féin, a massively boosted Alliance Party and the SDLP recognise that it is the only show in town. We therefore have a toxic double-whammy: We’re living with the fall-out of a Brexit the North voted against; and our politics is paralysed over opposition to a Protocol two-thirds of MLAs support. That must not be allowed to stand.