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8 March 2021

Boris Johnson’s reckless Brexit deal threatens to destroy peace in Northern Ireland

After the Prime Minister’s broken promises, the risk of a return to violence in the province must be taken seriously.

By Martin Fletcher

Even by the standards of this uniquely sleazy government, last week was a shocker. Amid a grave economic crisis the government used the Budget to funnel money to Tory constituencies, and spent £340,000 to spare the Home Secretary a public hearing about her bullying. It emerged that Downing Street is spending nearly £12m on new briefing and situation rooms, and that the girlfriend of a prime minister who styles himself as the champion of the people wants to spend £200,000 redecorating their Downing Street flat, preferably with influence-seeking Tory donors footing the bill. Ministers meanwhile slashed Britain’s aid to war zones and awarded nurses – those pandemic heroes who saved Boris Johnson’s life last April – a 1 per cent pay rise. Last year Dominic Cummings received a 40 per cent increase.

As all that was unfolding I flew to Belfast to meet the latest in the steadily lengthening list of victims of Johnsonian perfidy that includes his former wives, editors, party leaders and employers. I refer to Northern Ireland’s loyalists. They are an unlovable bunch, the political equivalent of those Millwall fans who chant “nobody likes us, we don’t care”, and they have a long history of accusing British governments of betraying Ulster. But this time their grievance  and that of Unionism in general  is justified.

From late 2018 Johnson pledged solemnly and repeatedly that “no British government could, or should, sign up to” a Brexit deal that rendered Northern Ireland “an economic semi-colony of the EU”; that there would be a border in the Irish Sea “over my dead body”; that trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would remain “unfettered” with “no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind”, and that any customs forms should be “put in the bin”. 

Johnson reneged on every word. Months after becoming prime minister, he secured his EU withdrawal deal and avoided a new hard border on the island of Ireland by accepting the Irish Sea border he had promised to reject. As a result, trade between Britain and Northern Ireland has been seriously impeded since the Brexit transition period ended on 31 December.

Under the new protocol, meat products, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, plants, seeds for crops and gardens, saplings for forestry, commercial parcels, tractors, farm machinery, specially bred Cambridgeshire potatoes for the province’s fish and chip shops and countless other “imports” from Britain incur inspections, duties and reams of costly paperwork. Wooden delivery pallets are subject to checks. Dog owners require pet passports to bring their labradors home after holidays in Britain. Baby eels needed to restock the Lough Neagh fishery are banned, as is anything bearing a speck of British soil – a measure whose stark symbolism seems calculated to inspire loyalist fury. Many British suppliers have simply stopped selling to Northern Ireland because of the additional costs and hassle.

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This is about more than inconvenience, or the fact that these restrictions will lead to shortages, restricted choice and higher prices in one of the UK’s poorest regions. While the rest of the UK has left the EU in every respect, Northern Ireland remains a member of its single market, and subject to thousands of EU rules and regulations that are enforceable by the European Court of Justice and over which it has no democratic say.

For all the Brexiteers’ boasts of restoring British sovereignty, the protocol erects barriers between one part of the UK and another that the EU is zealously enforcing. It thrusts the province firmly into the economic orbit of the Republic of Ireland, with which trade remains unfettered, or what one Unionist leader calls “a waiting room for Irish unity”. It breaches the fundamental tenet of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which said there should be no change to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status without the consent of both its nationalist and Unionist communities. Indeed, it pulls apart the very peace accord that it was supposed to protect by avoiding a land border.

Whether Johnson fully understood the consequences of the protocol he freely signed up to, or did not care, is unclear. Either way, he did not consult Northern Ireland, or seek its approval, before reaching the deal. He simply imposed it on a province where he has no votes to lose, in which he has never shown any interest and of whose complex dynamics he has displayed an alarming lack of understanding. 

The leader of what is still formally known as the Conservative and Unionist Party once compared the deeply emotive scar that divides Northern Ireland from the Republic to the boundaries of London’s congestion zone. Last Christmas Eve, after clinching his paltry trade deal with the EU, he seemingly forgot about Northern Ireland altogether when he declared that “we have taken back control of our laws and destiny. We have taken back control of every jot and tittle of our regulation in a way that is complete and unfettered.” 

Johnson usually contrives to escape the consequences of his duplicity, but with Northern Ireland he is playing with fire. To alleviate the worst manifestations of the sea border, David Frost, the unelected Brexit minister, unilaterally suspended some of the protocol’s provisions last week, further undermining Britain’s claim to be a law-abiding nation and enraging Brussels.

But that shameless abrogation of our legal duties will not appease Unionists and loyalists. They are united as seldom before in their belief that the protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s union with Britain. David Trimble, a leading architect of the Good Friday Agreement, said it “shatters Northern Ireland’s constitutional relationship with the UK” and represents an “indefensible attack on the rights and livelihood of Northern Ireland citizens”.

The loyalists I met last week were senior representatives of the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association, Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando. All three were former combatants now committed to peace and reconciliation. They told me their people were “seething”, and felt “absolutely betrayed” by a prime minister who had sacrificed their interests to keep nationalists and republicans happy. They said that the peace process was “in serious danger of unravelling” and that they were struggling to restrain hot-headed young loyalists. The Loyalist Communities Council, the paramilitaries’ umbrella group, underlined their point by withdrawing its support for the Good Friday Agreement. 

Warning of a return to violence is a common negotiating tactic in Northern Ireland, but in this instance the threat should not be lightly dismissed. Signs and graffiti denouncing the Irish Sea border are springing up in loyalist housing estates. Irish reunification is rising up the political agenda. The Covid lockdown will soon be relaxed. The loyalist marching season looms, as does May’s potentially fraught centenary of Ireland’s partition and the creation of Northern Ireland. It adds up to what my loyalist interlocutors called a “perfect storm”. 

The province, and our reckless prime minister, should brace for a long hot summer.