In December 1993, prime minister John Major declared that the United Kingdom had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland. Those words helped to lay the foundations for the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 – the accord that has provided an uneasy but enduring resolution to one of the most intractable conflicts of the late 19th and 20th centuries. But now, 26 years later, Boris Johnson’s attitude to the delicate political settlement on the island of Ireland can be summed up rather more succinctly: he does not seem to care.
If ratified by parliament, the Prime Minister’s revised withdrawal agreement with the European Union will establish a customs and regulatory border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Northern Irish unionists, whose political parties have seldom agreed on Brexit, are united in dismay. Both Mr Johnson and his predecessor, Theresa May, repeatedly promised that the Conservative and Unionist Party would never countenance such an outcome. Yet with the government having also committed to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, a border in the Irish Sea has always been the only plausible route to the hard Brexit that Mr Johnson and the libertarian right crave.
The Prime Minister is, of course, a serial opportunist and has never shared Mrs May’s unwavering commitment to the Union. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Conservatives’ former allies and confidence and supply partners, have learned this lesson the hard way. Last November, while a backbench MP, Mr Johnson addressed the DUP’s conference in Belfast. Feted by his audience, he vowed never to support new economic barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But, like Randolph Churchill, Mr Johnson merely played “the orange card” in search of advantage within his own party and at Westminster – and now those barriers are set to be imposed.
One does not have to sympathise with the DUP, many of whom are hard-line reactionaries, to be alarmed about the potential consequences of Mr Johnson’s “betrayal”, as it has been called by some unionists. Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, is no Ian Paisley, and her party is no longer a bastion of fundamentalist Presbyterianism, but elements of the DUP still appear uncomfortable with the modern world. Their ultra-conservative positions on abortion and same-sex marriage cannot be defended. However, to dismiss the DUP’s legitimate concerns about what Mr Johnson’s deal means for the Union would be to disavow one of the great triumphs of the Good Friday Agreement: defusing the vexed issue of identity in Northern Ireland. Underpinned by the UK and the Republic of Ireland’s common membership of the EU, people in Northern Ireland were free to be British, Irish, or both. Unionists now believe that Mr Johnson is denying them that choice, while a hard border in Ireland would deny it to nationalists. This is not conducive to a stable polity.
In pushing ahead regardless, the Prime Minister continues one of the British state’s most egregious traditions: its neglect of peace and stability on the island of Ireland in pursuit of narrow, partisan interests. Through the protracted Brexit process, this ignorance has found its most destructive expression. It was inevitable that the Irish border question would complicate the fraught process of EU withdrawal, but the issue was largely ignored during the 2016 referendum campaign. A notable exception was this magazine, which published columns by the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Mary McAleese, the former Irish president, in the weeks before the referendum.
Only now are the consequences of elite complacency on Ireland clear. Brexit has put the post-imperial British state, an already fragile construct, under near intolerable strain. Britain, as John Gray writes in this week’s cover essay beginning on page 22, is becoming ungovernable. Unresolved issues – the Irish question, the English question, Scottish independence, the UK’s role in the world – have returned with a vengeance to destabilise the present. If MPs licence Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit, tougher reckonings will follow.