After a bruising week for the DUP in its brooding over the Windsor Framework, where now for Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s party?
The parliamentary vote on the new Brexit deal on Irish Sea trading arrangements was always a foregone conclusion after Labour agreed to back the government.
But the sheer scale of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s victory as MPs voted on Wednesday – 515 in favour and just 29 against – laid bare how isolated the DUP has become.
Read more:Brendan Hughes: Arlene Foster role in DUP panel reveals Windsor Framework strategy
Long gone are the days when the unionist party held the balance of power at Westminster during former Prime Minister Theresa May’s ill-fated backstop negotiations.
All those behind-closed-doors meetings with the Eurosceptic ERG wing in recent weeks, which fuelled speculation of a full-on Tory rebellion, amounted to little more than a whimper.
Its “star chamber” of lawyers may have dismissed the Stormont Brake element of the deal as “practically useless”, but the European Research Group is clearly a diminished force in Conservative politics.
Not even Boris Johnson opposing his Tory leadership rival’s deal with the European Union could persuade many backbenchers to join the revolt.
Once untouchable within the Conservative ranks but now tainted by partygate, Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker branding him a “Pound Shop Nigel Farage” was a sign of how far the former Prime Minister’s stock has fallen.
The overriding impression is that Westminster wants to move on from the Brexit wars. After the exhaustion of years of disputes, it wants an improved relationship with Brussels.
Both sides wish to restore relations at a time when they are facing many other challenges, from managing cost-of-living pressures to responding to the war in Ukraine.
The Windsor Framework may very well be considered by some to be a fudge, but sealing the deal looks set to open the door to further cooperation.
Talk will now turn to issues such as financial services and whether the UK might rejoin the EU’s flagship Horizon research scheme.
There seemed to be little point in the UK government continuing with a softly-softly approach by giving the DUP more time to mull over the Windsor Framework.
In the weeks since the deal was announced, the party’s rhetoric has hardened as the staunch Brexiteers such as MP Ian Paisley and TUV leader Jim Allister set the tone.
Sir Jeffrey initially described the deal as “significant progress” albeit with “key issues of concern”, but is now branding it a “sticking plaster”.
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The DUP voting against the deal in the Commons confirmed any chance of the party changing tack and selling it to unionist voters as a win has long since passed.
The findings due later this month of Sir Jeffrey’s panel set up to assess the deal now seem irrelevant when the party has already declared its hand.
The dilemma now for the DUP is that if the UK’s sovereign parliament backs the Windsor Framework, then what alternative is there for unionism other than returning to Stormont?
All roads lead back to power-sharing. The question is what staging posts are needed for the DUP to get off the hook it has caught itself on.
The Secretary of State said there will be “no renegotiating” of the Windsor Framework, but that does not rule out other options.
Chris Heaton Harris has already floated plans to amend the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to reassure unionists of the region’s constitutional position in the United Kingdom.
Attention is also turning to what kind of financial carrot the government could wave in front of the Northern Ireland parties to make Stormont’s significant budgetary problems go away.
The DUP is unlikely to make a decision on ending its Stormont boycott this side of May’s council elections.
But a sweetener in the period after the poll which the party could package as a concession could provide the answer.
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