The Guardian view on Northern Ireland: Boris Johnson isn’t bothered | Editorial

The past eight weeks have rocked Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party to its core, perhaps terminally. So it is not surprising that most of the DUP has reacted to the unopposed election of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as the party’s third leader since Easter with something like exhausted relief. Sir Jeffrey will be confirmed as leader on Saturday, but he is already benefiting from a general sense that the recent period of fevered inner-party turmoil, in which Arlene Foster and Edwin Poots were each removed in short order as DUP leaders, could not be permitted to continue.

Feelings remain very high, however, and it is possible that Sir Jeffrey’s expected move against Northern Ireland’s first minister, Paul Givan, a Poots nominee, may rekindle the DUP civil war. It may therefore prove less bothersome if Mr Givan, installed only last week in a manoeuvre that backfired spectacularly on Mr Poots, stays on for a while, until Sir Jeffrey can join the Northern Ireland assembly and take over. That depends on how Mr Givan and his more fundamentalist wing of the party created by Ian Paisley in 1971 respond. A bitter radio interview by Mr Poots this week suggests wounds are deep.

Even so, this may only be a brief interlude. A Stormont election looms. It may have to be brought forward if the deal on Irish language legislation struck with Sinn Féin and the UK government by Mr Poots last week is not carried out by September. But a more volatile possibility is barely a fortnight away, with the start of the main marching season on 12 July. With unionist opposition so aroused over the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol, which creates a trade border with Britain in the Irish Sea, this threatens to be a very hot political summer.

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The crucial issue facing the new DUP leadership is therefore the protocol. Running for the leadership a month ago, Sir Jeffrey pledged that he would “vigorously oppose the protocol both in principle and in practice”. But demands to abolish the protocol are not going to succeed. For one thing, the EU will never agree. For another, the majority of Northern Ireland voters want the UK to agree to regulatory alignment with the EU. So Sir Jeffrey’s words when he was elected this week, calling on the UK and EU to “step up and recognise the flaws of the protocol”, are significant. They could be the start of a more realistic, but still challenging, effort to steer unionist opinion away from insistence on the protocol’s removal.

This is a tall order, given the current state of unionist opinion. It is an even taller one in the light of Boris Johnson’s clear preference for indifference and insult in relations with the EU. There have been some signs this week that the UK and the EU may be edging towards a truce on some aspects of the protocol. This may temporarily dial down the dispute that Mr Johnson deceitfully promotes to British voters as a sausage war, when, in Northern Ireland terms, where export markets to the Irish republic are unaffected, it is not one. The two sides remain far apart on wider regulatory enforcement issues because the UK has chosen that course. Mr Johnson likes having rows with the EU. They boost him at home. He isn’t bothered about Northern Ireland. Sir Jeffrey does not have that luxury.

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