Understanding the politics of Northern Ireland is not easy. The Democratic Unionist Party’s weird manoeuvres and internal machinations can make Tory party plots look as tame as a Sunday-school picnic.
The DUP staged a strange piece of political theatre this week by announcing that the party’s agriculture minister, Edwin Poots, would halt checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Simultaneously, DUP first minister Paul Givan quit in protest at the UK government’s failure to bring the legal checks agreed with the EU to an end.
What is the DUP playing at? How badly has it messed up the Northern Ireland protocol arrangements forged in the Brexit deal? Could the latest developments even spark a trade war between the UK and the EU?
It’s hard to say exactly how London and Brussels will respond in the days ahead, given that we still don’t know how the DUP’s radical move will play out.
But we do know that the party’s actions have raised the stakes, as UK foreign secretary Liz Truss and her EU Commission counterpart Maros Sefcovic wrestle with a potential compromise deal over the protocol, which would ease the rules on checks.
Civil servants have continued to carry out agri-foods checks this weekend amid legal uncertainty, while Mr Poots’s order for border officials to stop the checks is being challenged in the courts.
It remains unclear whether the checks will be halted next week – or whether the order will be stuck in legal limbo for many weeks to come. Trade bodies are advising companies to carry on as normal, for now.
Sinn Fein, not unfairly, have described the DUP’s moves as “stunts” purely aimed at improving the party’s chances at the forthcoming May elections. But the radical electioneering has intense and potentially catastrophic real-world consequences.
The Republic of Ireland’s foreign affairs minister, Simon Coveney, has said that the ending of the checks required by the protocol would be a “breach of international law”, and would violate the terms of the Brexit deal.
Top EU officials are keeping calm for now, but are deeply unimpressed that Ms Truss and other ministers are refusing to condemn the DUP or otherwise get involved, with the UK government taking the line that the mess is a “matter for the executive” in Belfast.
Mr Sefcovic has said that the UK government has a “responsibility” for the checks agreed in the protocol, and can’t blame the failure to meet these obligations on the naughty children running the show in Northern Ireland.
But Ms Truss and Team UK will try to argue that the facts on the ground show exactly why the EU needs to give way and ease up on the checks.
It’s unlikely that the EU would look at the end of agri-food checks as amounting to the triggering of Article 16 – the means by which Downing Street has threatened to suspend parts of the protocol – by default.
But the ending of checks would put considerable pressure on the UK to agree to a deal with the EU quickly. And in the absence of an agreed London-Brussels compromise, the DUP’s incendiary move could light the fuse on the dispute, hastening a breakdown in talks and pushing Boris Johnson’s government into triggering Article 16.
This takes us into trade-war territory, in which the EU takes a series of retaliatory measures for the suspension of protocol arrangements.
Brussels chiefs have previously been said to have a “nuclear” option of terminating the Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), forcing the UK to trade with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms – essentially a “no-deal” Brexit scenario.
But Brussels experts think it’s more likely they would consider retaliating through a lesser-known part of the TCA: Article 506. The moves could range from stopping fishing in EU waters to tariffs on UK fish going into the EU, and then move on to tariffs on other goods.
Alternatively, the two sides could see sense and do a deal that would ease much of the red tape on agri-food products through an agreed list of certain goods that would still require stricter checks.
Sam Lowe, a trade expert at the Centre for European Reform, said that there is another scenario in which the whole rotten mess rumbles on indefinitely – one in which the UK “continues to engage in low-level non-compliance” while “negotiations begin, stall, and begin again”.
What about Mr Johnson? What does he want to do now? It’s hard to say if the embattled prime minister, fighting to stave off a Tory rebellion over Partygate, has given the problem much thought in recent days.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader (yes, there is actually someone in charge), has claimed Mr Johnson told him privately that there was only a “20 to 30 per cent chance” of negotiating a new protocol deal with the EU in the next few weeks.
Make of that what you will. Mr Johnson makes a lot of promises that turn out to mean very little. So we are left hoping there are still enough grown-ups around to sort the whole thing out. For a while, at least.