Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Comment
18 October 2021

Brexit isn’t done – and Boris Johnson can’t answer the Irish Question

No previous prime minister would have acted in such a shameful and destructive manner over Northern Ireland.

By Martin Fletcher

“As the deluge subsides and the waters fall short,” Winston Churchill wearily complained after the First World War, “we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.”

Our modern day Churchill wannabe (he’s even started painting on holiday) must feel much the same. Boris Johnson has no interest in Northern Ireland. He can win no votes there. There is scant evidence of him ever having visited the province before he achieved high office. He once compared its border with the Republic of Ireland to London’s congestion charge zone – a statement of astounding ignorance matched only by Karen Bradley’s admission, as Northern Ireland secretary, that she had not realised “nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa”. 

But however much the Prime Minister squirms, lies, rats and welches, he cannot escape its grasp. No amount of “cake-ism” can solve the insoluble conundrum that his hard Brexit requires a border between the UK and the Irish republic, and that it cannot be on the island of Ireland because that would seriously undermine the Good Friday Agreement. Try as he might, he simply cannot get Northern Ireland – and Brexit – “done”.

Back in 2018 Johnson rejected Theresa May’s solution – a “backstop” that would have kept the entire UK aligned to the rules of the EU’s single market and customs union until an alternative could be found. Indeed, the then-foreign secretary seized the chance to resign over the issue, boosting his chances of succeeding the hapless May as Tory party leader by arguing that Britain was heading for “the status of a colony”.

He then proceeded to promise Northern Ireland’s unionists – solemnly, repeatedly and unequivocally – that there would be a border in the Irish Sea “over my dead body”, that “no British government could, or should, sign up to” a Brexit deal that rendered the province “an economic colony of the EU”, and that its trade with the rest of the UK would remain “unfettered” with “no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind”. Any customs forms should be “put in the bin”, he added for good measure.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Fast forward to late 2019. Johnson has succeeded May as prime minister. He is struggling to get any form of Brexit approved in parliament, and he has lost his majority. So what does he do? He meets Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, at a country house in Merseyside and agrees a border in the Irish Sea – though for public consumption he continues to insist “there’s no question of there being checks on goods going NI/GB or GB/NI”.

That blatant betrayal of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose parliamentary support had kept him and May in power, allowed Johnson to call, and win, a December general election by claiming to have secured a “brilliant” and “oven-ready” withdrawal deal that would enable him to “get Brexit done”. But we now know from Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser at that time, that the Prime Minister’s camp had no intention of honouring the “Northern Ireland protocol”.

In a series of tweets last week, Cummings said he had always intended to get Johnson to “ditch the bits we didn’t like”. He added: “Of course there wasn’t good faith… cheating foreigners is a core part of the job.”

Content from our partners
Cyber security is a team game
Why consistency matters
Community safety includes cyber security

Cummings offered the charitable explanation that Johnson simply did not understand what he had agreed to. “He never had a scoobydoo what the deal he signed meant…In 1/20 he was babbling ‘Id never have signed it if Id understood it’.” But on Newsnight, the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jr said Johnson had assured him that “after agreeing to the protocol, he would sign up to changing that protocol and indeed tearing it up, that this was just for the semantics”.

Either way, the protocol’s baleful consequences swiftly became apparent after the UK left the EU at the start of this year: a huge range of imports from Britain to Northern Ireland suddenly faced a daunting array of checks, duties and bureaucratic barriers that the EU proceeded zealously to enforce.

Loyalists rioted. Unionists demanded the government abandon a protocol that was not only causing empty supermarket shelves, but cast Northern Ireland adrift constitutionally from the rest of the UK. Johnson, his sidekick David Frost and the Tory press began to complain, preposterously, that the Prime Minister had signed the protocol under duress and demanded a radical renegotiation of a deal they had agreed and trumpeted scarcely one year earlier. 

Last week, the EU offered to end the so-called “sausage wars” by lifting as much as 80 per cent of the border checks, but the previous day Frost had issued another demand that flew in the face of what he had previously agreed, and that he must know Brussels will never accept. He demanded the removal of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as the ultimate arbiter of the protocol.

How this tawdry saga will end is anyone’s guess. The least bad outcome is that Johnson will eventually pocket the EU’s concessions and claim victory, but Frost’s ECJ demand suggests our cynical Prime Minister sees greater electoral mileage in continuing to battle all those scheming Anglophobic eurocrats ganging up on poor old Britain. 

Should he choose that route, and unilaterally suspend the protocol by invoking Article 16, a country already suffering acute shortages of fuel and labour could soon find itself in a full-blown, unwinnable trade war with a bloc of 27 member states and 447 million people to which it presently sells 40 per cent of all its exports.

Whatever the outcome, this much can already be said for sure. Johnson has trashed the UK’s reputation as a trustworthy, law-abiding nation. He has poisoned its relations with the EU at a time when it is manifestly in Britain’s interests to improve them. He has betrayed Northern Ireland’s unionist community (though the Brexit-supporting, Tory-backing DUP has contributed mightily to its own demise), and made it even more probable that Sinn Féin will emerge as the biggest party if the DUP has not collapsed the Stormont assembly before next May’s elections. 

He has jeopardised Northern Ireland’s fragile peace and made Irish reunification much more likely. He has strained relations with President Biden and the Democratic leaders of the US Congress, who are dismayed by his cavalier attitude towards the delicate Good Friday Agreement.

No previous prime minister would have acted in such a shameful and destructive manner, least of all Churchill for all his frustration with that troubled and troublesome province across the Irish Sea.

[See also: What is the Northern Ireland protocol, and why does it matter?]

Topics in this article: ,