There are decades when nothing happens, Lenin famously observed, and weeks when decades happen. It’s a pretty good rule for understanding Irish history, with long periods of statis punctuated by dramatic events.
Think of the period between 1798 and 1803 – with a brace of Irish revolutions, or between 1916 and 1921, with another two.
Now I don’t want to infer that the past week or so is of similar magnitude, but there have been three, interconnected developments that feel significant, certainly symbolic, with real implications for the future.
The first, and most obvious, is Sinn Fein’s emergence as the largest party following last week’s assembly elections.
Not just that, but the more granular result, with the overall gap between Unionism and Nationalism – assessed by the actual votes of candidates with a clear enough position on the constitutional issue – now as close as 5,000 votes.
Then there’s the British government’s proposals to ‘ rip-up’ the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The last couple of weeks have been full of chest-puffing bellicosity, with briefings from the government that ministers were hell-bent on bringing forward legislation that would allow them to unilaterally resile from big chunks of the agreement, in the hope of bouncing the EU into making larger concessions than they have been willing to countenance, hitherto.
Originally, we were going to see a Bill in last week’s Queen’s Speech, but in a bid not to overshadow the rest of the legislative programme, the announcement was instead kicked into this week.
Yet all we got yesterday from Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was an outline of what she proposes, including recycling the idea of a ‘green channel’ with lighter touch regulation of goods coming from Britain that are intended to be consumed in the Northern Ireland market, with a promise of a draft Bill to appear in coming weeks.
A drama in instalments, then, with talk that the final text has not even been agreed – with concerns over how the EU might respond – as the British economy, plagued by low growth projections and rising inflation, teeters on the verge of recession.
There is also real pressure being exerted by the Americans behind the scenes. This might account for Boris Johnson downgrading the proposed Bill, describing it merely as ‘insurance’ on his trip to Belfast on Monday, keen to talk-up hopes that bilateral dialogue will still yield a pragmatic outcome.
What it shows is that the government is not going to die on a hill protecting the interests of the DUP, or Unionism more generally.
The plan, if indeed there is one, is that the promise of legislation is enough to cajole the DUP back into the executive while this Bill wends its way through its parliamentary stages, creating space for the government to find agreement with the EU’s chief negotiator Maroš Šefčovič in the meantime.
This is significant, as this government is stuffed full of ‘BRoNs’ – Brit Romantic Nationalists. Think of Boris, Rees-Mogg and Gove – lusty Brexiteers who talk-up the manifold benefits of Brexit, reducing complex issues into bromides with reckless abandon.
But they aren’t stupid.
They are not going to risk a schism with Washington and jeopardise any chance of a UK-US trade deal – or cut their noses off to spite their faces by risking a trade war with the EU – still Britain’s largest export market.
On paper, this is the friendliest government Unionists have had since Thatcher (the small matter of the Anglo-Irish Agreement aside). Yet, if Jeffrey Donaldson is expecting a lifeboat, then he better start swimming or he’s going to left floundering in the sea.
Realpolitik is how British ministers will approach Northern Ireland in the months and years to come; the past few days have shown us that. They will win a few more concessions, no doubt, but then it will be left to Donaldson to sell the outcome.
This matters following a small but pointed intervention by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar overnight, with RTE reporting that he told a business dinner that while not convinced there should be a border poll at present, ‘more clarity’ is warranted about the mechanism for calling one.
Moreover, any the decision ‘can’t just’ be left to the British Secretary of State, (as set out on the Good Friday Agreement) suggesting he saw a role for the assembly in making the decision.
This is new, with Irish ministers generally as willing as their British counterparts to observe a self-denying ordinance about all matters relating to how a border poll happens.
So, these three symbolic developments – the changing political composition in the North, evidence of pragmatism behind the bluster from the British government, and Varadkar’s remarks about a poll are all significant – and help to turn the ratchet another notch.
Kevin Meagher is author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How it Will Come About’