Support 100 years of independent journalism.

How will Boris Johnson resolve the Northern Irish trilemma?

The solution most likely to attract cross-community support is one Johnson cannot adopt: a softer Brexit or no Brexit at all.

By Harry Lambert

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.

Select and enter your email address 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. Your new guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture each weekend - from the New Statesman. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Content from our partners
How to navigate the modern cyber-threat landscape
Supporting customers through the cost of living crisis
Data on cloud will change the way you interact with the government