WITH the suspension of the Northern Ireland Executive, politics in the province appears to have gone into hibernation. But this is only the calm before the next constitutional storm erupts – an eruption that could have profound consequences for the whole UK.

For May 5, as well as seeing local elections across the British mainland, will bring yet another vote for Stormont. Only this time, Sinn Fein could emerge as the largest party in the Six Counties and therefore claim the right to appoint party leader Michelle O’Neill as first minister.

The latest opinion polls (admittedly a few weeks old now) have Sinn Fein on 26% compared to 19% for the DUP, till now the leading Unionist party. Of course, under present constitutional arrangements, both parties would have to agree to form a fresh joint administration at Stormont. Currently, the likelihood of the DUP agreeing to a subservient role to Sinn Fein is slim, given the potent symbolism of Irish nationalists replacing Unionists as Stormont’s effective face to the world.

The National: A Sinn Fein worker adjusts the Irish flag on stage at the Mansion House Dublin

And that is before we get to the vexed question of the EU and the Northern Ireland Protocol. The Belfast Agreement (which ended the “Troubles”) enshrined in international law that the whole island of Ireland would be one economy, in terms of internal free trade.

That was hardly an issue while Britain remained in the EU. With Brexit, the terms of the Belfast Agreement mandated that Northern Ireland stay in the EU single market. That, in turn, means a trade border down the Irish Sea – despite numerous assurances to the contrary by Boris Johnson.

The final Brexit deal between the UK and former partners in the EU includes the now infamous Northern Ireland Protocol. This legal agreement (negotiated and signed by Britain) adds extra detail on how trade is managed between mainland Britain and a Northern Ireland that remains inside the EU single market.

However, the DUP has always rejected a hard trade border between the Six Counties and the rest of the UK – though that implies a de facto rejection of the Belfast Agreement. The DUP’s resistance to the EU protocol led inevitably to the collapse of the power-sharing administration with Sinn Fein last February.

READ MORE: Scottish minister Neil Gray blasts Northern Ireland Protocol changes as ‘unthinkable’

The DUP, of course, have been having their own problems and the party’s shenanigans around the protocol are partly designed as a smokescreen to divert attention from its internal civil war.

In April 2021, the DUP’s scandal-riddled leader Arlene Foster had to quit as Northern Ireland’s first minister when she lost the confidence of her elected members. Foster was replaced by the loopy creationist Edwin Poots, who lasted a whole 21 days, quitting in turn after allegations that Ulster Defence Association paramilitaries had tried to intimidate supporters of his rival, Jeffrey Donaldson. The latter was then duly installed as DUP leader and first minister.

Donaldson’s first act was to attempt to revive the DUP’s failing electoral fortunes by taking the party out of the Northern Ireland Executive and calling for the EU protocol to be torn up. But this strategy appears to have backfired with the rise of Sinn Fein in the polls and the distinct possibility of nationalist O’Neill as first minister instead of Donaldson (below).

The National: DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson speaks during an anti Northern Ireland Protocol rally and parade in late March

Sinn Finn are busy campaigning on economic issues and the rising cost of living, which might explain their poll success. Predictably, Donaldson and the DUP are telling Unionist voters that a Sinn Fein victory will lead to a reunification referendum. Sinn Fein still carry the baggage of being the IRA’s political wing during the long period of civil war between 1969 and 1998. These days, they are able to win votes by presenting themselves as the anti-establishment party in both the republic and the Six Counties.

At the 2020 Irish general election, Sinn Fein won the largest number of first-preference votes but were prevented from forming a government when rival parties joined in a somewhat opportunistic coalition to keep it in opposition.

However, it seems inevitable that someday – north and south of the Irish border – Sinn Fein will come to power. And that will re-open the border question big time.

All this explains the rush by Boris Johnson to announce – on a trip to post-colonial India of all places – that he is contemplating unilaterally scrapping the Northern Ireland Protocol. Johnson is throwing a big political bone to the DUP in an attempt to thwart the rise of Sinn Fein. It also plays well among Tory backbenchers and Boris needs to shore his personal support in that quarter after partygate.

It appears the PM is contemplating using the Queen’s speech on May 10 to announce legislating the revocation of articles 5-10 of the protocol, which obliges Britain to apply single-market rules to Northern Ireland including checks on goods going into the Six Counties from the mainland (which particularly irk the DUP).

The new legislation is expected to amend the existing EU Withdrawal Act that gives the protocol primacy in British law. That would – in most lawyers’ eyes – be a clear breach of international law. But hey! This is Boris we are talking about. The law means nothing where this man is concerned.

The end of the protocol might give the DUP enough wiggle room to rejoin the Northern Ireland Executive, even under Sinn Fein. That would put Stormont in a political box and let the Tories get on with running Westminster. Boris clearly hopes any international repercussions (especially from the White House) will be muted by the Ukraine crisis. But scrapping the Protocol is a gamble, nevertheless.

For starters, breeching or abrogating international treaty obligations is not something that goes away. At some point, the UK will be held to account in international law and be made to pay the consequences.

Secondly, the Irish lobby remains politically potent in America. So don’t expect the White House to ignore the unilateral scrapping of a treaty obligation that was brokered in the States itself – Putin or no Putin. Thirdly, of course, the very best way of ensuring Northern Ireland becomes a permanent thorn in the side of Westminster is to dump the Belfast Agreement – and scrapping the Protocol does exactly that.

The National: Neil Gray

What does this imply for Scotland? To his credit, SNP Europe Minister Neil Gray (above) has already publicly opposed any moves to scrap the protocol. But it would help if SNP and Alba MPs at Westminster made the maximum nuisance of themselves over the issue.

Tory and even Labour MPs are notoriously obtuse when it comes to Irish matters. Frankly, whatever they claim, the Conservatives consider Northern Ireland to be a mini and ungovernable colony which is not really part of “real” Britain.

The Scottish Government should also give complete support to any calls for a new border poll in Ireland, including from Sinn Fein – which is, after all, the most popular political party with the electorate in both the republic and the Six Counties.

Regular border polls are baked into the Belfast Agreement. I don’t doubt that is a democratic loophole both the DUP and the Tories would like to dispense with, along with the EU protocol. And if a border poll is allowed for the Six Counties, it cannot reasonably be denied to Scotland. Even by Boris.