Unionism is facing a moment of truth as patience with the DUP’s attempts to block political change has run out.
The implementation of the Windsor Framework, the most recent attempt to placate unionist demands over Brexit regulations, had been dubbed ‘Irish Sea Border’ day and hyped as a major political crisis.
In the end it arrived without any tangible evidence of change. ‘Red’ and ‘green’ channels introduced for trade between the north of Ireland and Britain emerged as merely columns on a spreadsheet, a huge anticlimax for loyalists seeking to incite trouble.
Despite continued warnings over sheds still to be constructed at ports, the only physical sign of Brexit seven years on from the referendum remains ‘Not for EU’ labelling on certain food products.
In an attempt to extract new concessions from a Tory government at the end of a 13-year reign in power, unionists pointed to poorly programmed websites and hypothetical haggis inspections to highlight their suffering.
But the desperation of ‘not an inch’ unionists to prevent the operation of the Stormont Executive under a nationalist First Minister was exposed by the non-event.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson urged unionists to “hold our nerve”, an attempt to engage in a new cycle of negotiations. The Orange Order backed the boycott of the Assembly until the Windsor Framework is “dealt with to the satisfaction of unionism”.
And loyalist activist Jamie Bryson sent a letter to three unionist party leaders over the weekend warning that any return to Stormont would see “a return to mass street protests”.
Promoted by the BBC as a rival to unionist politicians, the blogger has declared that he will actively campaign at next year’s Westminster election against any “collaborator and implementer in the subjugation and suspension of the Union”.
Donaldson has previously appeared paralysed in the face of a hostile response from unionist hardliners, but he has been urged not to “bow down” to the threats of loyalist street protests.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood called on him to be “very careful.”
“I think Stormont can get up and running but it takes a bit of political courage from the DUP. Jeffrey Donaldson needs to be very careful and not be cowed by the leader of the Blue Bin Brigade,” he said, referring to Bryson’s past use of a recycling bin as an impromptu podium.
“Jamie Bryson has had his chance at street protests over the last number of years, and with people supposedly extremely angry, it hasn’t exactly developed. Where were these mass protests?”
In an unusual response, Donaldson has insisted the DUP is “the main voice of unionism” and it will not bow to “intimidation.”
But he has been urged to go further and end the political limbo his party has created over the past two years – and finally allow Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill to take up her elected role as First Minister.
She told the media in Belfast that the two governments needed to be more proactive in finding a solution. The stasis in the north of Ireland was almost entirely ignored by the Tory annual party conference this week.
Ms O’Neill said: “What we need to see, and what we should have heard from the Prime Minister today, is the action, the plan that he has to work with the Irish Government to end the DUP’s blockage of the assembly.
“That is where the public want us to be, working together and having their back through the cost-of-living crisis.
“Everyone has been more than reasonable giving time and space to the DUP, but that patience has run out.
“We are at the end of that road and what we need to see is the action plan to get us back into the executive.
“The real question now for the DUP is are they prepared to accept the outcome of last May’s assembly election?
“Are they prepared to accept shared power on an equal basis with ourselves and with the other parties?”