What Boris Johnson and his allies get wrong about Britain and Ireland

In private and in public, Team Johnson's argument about customs and the Good Friday Agreement doesn't prove the point they think it does.

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There’s a point that Boris Johnson and his inner circle are fond of making about the United Kingdom, the European Union and Ireland, and it doesn’t prove what they think it does.

Their point is this – that there is nothing in the Good Friday Agreement about customs checks or regulatory arrangements. Dominic Cummings has said it on his blog, and many of Johnson’s closest allies have said it privately. Johnson’s big Brexit letter alluded to it, referring to his commitment to “longstanding areas of UK/Ireland collaboration, including those provided for in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, but also in some cases predating the European Union”.

The point that they all want to make – and indeed the one that Cummings made explicitly in his blog – is that the argument about the importance of EU membership to peace in Northern Ireland is “bullshit invented by Irish nationalists and Remain campaigners”, which has “fatally undermined the UK’s negotiating position”, and left the UK with “the false choice of not really leaving the EU (‘the government’s backstop’) or undermining the UK’s constitutional integrity (‘the EU’s backstop’)”.

They’re half-right. In fact, I suspect in terms of the point they are originally replying to – which is that peace in Northern Ireland could not have been achieved without membership of the EU – I think they are probably considerably more than half right.

The shared aim of successive British and Irish governments has been a degree of shared regulatory alignment. This has facilitated easy and open travel between the two countries and de-escalated tensions around the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Both countries have been at the forefront of EU-wide attempts to remove barriers to trade within the bloc as a whole, and it is the removal of those barriers that created the economic and regulatory backdrop to allow the political settlement of the Good Friday Agreement.

That has seen both governments adopt similar immigration policies – it’s one reason why both nations are outside the Schengen Agreement, for instance – as well as a series of shared regulatory standards outside their minimum obligations created by EU membership.

Where the Johnson-Cummings point collapses is where it moves from a “Gotcha! Liberals! Owned!” point to an argument about the necessity or otherwise of the backstop. The Good Friday Agreement makes no reference to customs checks for the same reasons that the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which extended the minimum length of an election campaign from 17 working days to 25, makes no mention of the provisions to bring about an election – because there is already an act of parliament that does that.

That’s also why the Good Friday Agreement makes no reference to the common travel area, or a host of other provisions, for the simple reason that it has no need to. But whether the UK and Ireland are in the EU or not, the two nations have always needed and sought a close degree of regulatory alignment in order to facilitate an open and peaceful border between the two. That’s part of why both nations joined the European Economic Community on the same day.

Far from being, to use Cummings’s preferred phrase, “bullshit”, it underlines that the challenge of maintaining that regulatory alignment will not go away. It will remain the case even if the European Union collapses or if Ireland chooses to leave it that the UK and Ireland will require a very high level of regulatory alignment – of pooled or reduced sovereignty – in order to maintain their shared objectives as far as the Irish border is concerned.

One nation being inside the European Union while the other is not was always going to create a problem. The reality is that all the evidence suggests that a large majority of Irish people want to remain in the European Union and that this is unlikely to change, and that a majority of British voters opted to leave the European Union in 2016.

One choice isn’t innately more legitimate than the other. But the United Kingdom’s choice has presented a real question: how do you retain the shared regulatory alignment that has underpinned Anglo-Irish policy towards their shared border, essentially since the creation of Ireland as a modern state?

And as long as the government sees that argument primarily as one it has with British Remainers, rather than a difficult policy question, it will never be able to “get Brexit done”.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.