Boris Johnson is headed to Belfast today to discuss the perennial problem of the Northern Ireland protocol – the arrangement, agreed by Johnson’s government in 2019, that put a customs border in the Irish Sea. Johnson’s trip has been spurred by the DUP’s refusal to elect a new speaker to the Northern Ireland Assembly in protest at the protocol following elections earlier this month.
The protocol – for anyone who has chosen not to follow this strand of Brexit for the past six years – is the solution to a trilemma that Britain faced after voting to leave the EU and then deciding to leave the customs union. By insisting on “regulatory divergence” from the EU (the ability for Britain to set its own standards), the UK had to put a goods border somewhere: either on the Irish mainland, or in the Irish Sea.
The former would contradict the Good Friday Agreement; the latter would alienate unionists, leave a part of the UK under European jurisdiction, and possibly precipitate the reunification of Ireland. Johnson, perhaps carelessly unaware of what he was agreeing to (as Ken Clarke believed), or simply postponing the problem in order to get Brexit done, chose the latter. In doing so, he agreed to a solution that had previously been despised by Brexiteers when it was known as the Irish backstop. But he, and they, had an election to win.
Now he needs to shore up a faltering premiership and pacify the MPs who put him in power. For the past week his ministers have threatened that Britain will undermine the protocol unilaterally, a stance that seasoned Brexit observers suspect is little more than a bluff. Johnson has buckled in negotiations with the EU in the past, and is indeed expected to adopt a more conciliatory tone today than his outriders, such as Liz Truss, have done so far.
In doing so, Johnson will emphasise the need for a solution that has “cross-community support”. But the irony of Britain’s Northern Irish trilemma is that the solution most likely to win such support is the one that does not involve any border: for Britain to have remained in the customs union (and single market) in a softer Brexit, or to have had no Brexit at all.