The DUP could abstain on the Brexit deal vote to buy time as the party is still divided

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson – Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Since Rishi Sunak announced his new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland, the DUP play since time.

The Prime Minister increased the pressure at the DUP to get out of the fence by scheduling a de facto vote on the Windsor framework next Wednesday.

But Sir Jeffrey Donaldson can’t back the deal – and end the year Boycott of Stormont across the Irish Sea border – until after the May 18 local elections.

Support for the new Windsor framework could result in the DUP losing seats to the virulently anti-protocol party Traditional Unionist Voice, ultimately costing Sir Jeffrey his party’s leadership.

He is struggling to narrow the rift between his politicians in Northern Ireland, who are broadly in favor of a return to the Assembly, and those in Westminster, who are not.

How can he bridge these two camps without being accused of treason by one of the party’s many cannons?

Rejecting the deal outright isn’t an option at this point.

The new Windsor Framework will be implemented in Northern Ireland with or without support for the DUP.

Understandably, Sir Jeffrey was keen to claim credit for the changes to the protocol that are on the bench.

Rejecting the new deal will sacrifice the dwindling leverage for further concessions exercised through the Stormont boycott.

It’s far better now to see Sir Jeffrey as a player fighting for a better deal from the big boys in London, Brussels, Dublin and Washington.

Joe Biden will be in Belfast in April to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Maintaining the boycott against the wishes of the world’s most powerful man sends a message of strength to DUP supporters.

But the visit will also reveal the isolation of the DUP as the only major party in Northern Ireland opposed to the new deal – and the reinstatement of executive power – in a country weary of deadlock.

The momentum is shifting behind the Windsor Framework and against the DUP, which has not been able to count on government support since it signed the deal with the EU.

The European Research Group on Tory backbenchers who claim to be allies of the DUP has not, and is unlikely to, rebelled against their Prime Minister.

The omens are not good for a party unceremoniously thrown under the bus by the Tories after Boris Johnson’s 2019 election victory made protocol possible.

The longer Sir Jeffrey delays his decision and the longer the DUP ponders the deal, the greater the risk that his critics will tear it apart and make it impossible for him to accept it.

Sir Jeffrey will remember how his former party, the UUP, was hollowed out after accepting the Good Friday Agreement. He must maximize his profits before it’s too late.

After weeks of insisting he was neither positive nor negative about the agreement and awaiting legal analysis, he subtly changed his message this week.

He said the new agreement represents a significant improvement over the protocol, but there are still concerns that need to be clarified or amended.

Sir Jeffrey cannot tell Rishi Sunak to return to the negotiation room during Wednesday’s debate if he rejects or accepts the deal.

So he should tell his DUP MPs to abstain, saving them the choice of rebelling or going down in history and supporting a deal hated by loyalists and hardline unionists.

This is purely symbolic as the vote will pass, with Labor Party support if necessary, but symbolism is important in Northern Ireland.

Sir Jeffrey has no chance to change the Windsor Framework but he could get ‘clarification’ from the UK and EU.

Brussels has a long track record of drafting supplementary, non-binding documents to ‘clarify’ its treaties in order to secure domestic support for agreements from reluctant partners.

For Sir Jeffrey, such a document could be enough to end the boycott and return to Stormont after May’s local elections.

Even that will lose DUP support among loyalists and hardline unionists.

But Sir Jeffrey can bet fears of another term with a Sinn Féin First Minister will put them back in force at the next general election.

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