The Northern Ireland Protocol is the single most important issue as the people of the north prepare to vote next Thursday. Nor does it matter at all to most voters, who have more to worry about than an international trade deal gone awry.
The campaign only really took off in the last few days, as the parties released their manifestos and tried to grab the attention of a policy-weary public that has become increasingly disillusioned with old sectarian divides.
That Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has brought down the Northern Ireland Assembly over the Protocol and is desperate to make it a key campaign issue.
But after years of Brexit talks, voters are more concerned about their skyrocketing energy bills.
DUP elections director Gordon Lyons insisted the record comes on the doors as he polls his constituents.
“If you listen to the media, they will say protocol is not an issue and is not getting on the doors,” Mr Lyons said Irish Independent.
“I get it every time I visit the doors of my own constituency.
“Sometimes I get it from small businesses who can’t get goods into Northern Ireland and have stopped importing goods.”
sense fine will say there is no problem on the doors and has tried to focus his campaign on the cost of living crisis affecting voters on both sides of the border.
Northern party leader Michelle O’Neill even acknowledged that the people of Northern Ireland – even in republican communities – are not concerned about a border election or the achievement of a united Ireland.
“I think people woke up this morning and were thinking about the cost of living crisis. I think people woke up this morning to the pressure they’re feeling right now,” Ms O’Neill said in response to an opinion poll that found just one in three voters would vote for the association if asked in the morning would.
That’s not to say that Sinn Féin has suddenly lost interest in unifying the island, which will always be the party’s raison d’être.
A republic of 32 countries is still the party’s overarching goal, but Sinn Féin has rightly surmised that this is not the key issue for voters in the general election.
The party knows people are worried about making ends meet and frustrated that there has been no properly functioning government in Northern Ireland for some time.
The move to more centrist parties, notably the Alliance, reveals an electorate weary of yesterday’s sectarian head counts, which served no other purpose than to further divisive politics in the North.
However, the polls point to a good choice for Sinn Féin, who, after the votes have been counted, will be tipped for the post of First Minister.
The DUP says the protocol is driving up the cost of living and will not return to Stormont until the trade deal that created a border in the Irish Sea is complete.
In Dublin, government officials believe the DUP has been “weaponized” by the Tory party, which is trying to squeeze as much as it can out of Brussels on the post-Brexit trade deal.
The EU offered many concessions to the UK, effectively tearing up international agreements signed by officials, but none of the concessions have been sufficient so far.
Negotiations have stalled during the election campaign as the EU does not want to become a bogeyman in Northern Ireland’s elections.
It’s easy to see how this could happen if the talks were ongoing, and it would fall into the lap of the DUP, who must intimidate their constituents into supporting them.
Only after the votes have been counted will the talks be resumed on a significant scale.
Similarly, senior government officials such as Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Secretary of State Simon Coveney avoid commenting at length on the election, as whatever they say is echoed by union candidates.
However, Martin put pressure on the DUP by saying the parties should get the power-sharing executive up and running as soon as possible after the election.
In reality, however, the Irish Government knows that it will be some time before the Assembly works, especially once O’Neill becomes First Minister.
So the issue of protocol needs to be addressed to some extent in the weeks or months or years after next week’s vote.
The general election is also seen in Dublin as a referendum on the protocol.
Under the current regime, there is a sunset clause for an Assembly vote on the Minutes in 2024, so the composition of the Northern Ireland Parliament is important.
If the polls can be tracked, the numbers should be easy for those who support the trade deal. These include Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and the Northern Greens.
This will not encourage the DUP or other union parties to re-enter power-sharing.
On Thursday DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said he wanted to get the gathering going again but warned that a government program had to be negotiated and action on protocol had to be part of it.
I wouldn’t spend too much money getting the northern institutions up and running any time soon.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/protocol-isnt-a-priority-for-voters-in-the-north-but-it-is-the-biggest-stumbling-block-to-return-of-a-functioning-assembly-41602220.html Protocol is not a priority for Northern voters, but it is the biggest stumbling block to returning to a functioning assembly