How would Boris Johnson solve the Irish border problem?

The Conservative leadership candidate’s lack of firm principle and ideology suggests an accommodation with the EU could be more likely than it looks.

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Northern Ireland has never particularly animated Boris Johnson. In this respect, the former foreign secretary differs from other contenders for the Conservative leadership, most notably his nemesis Michael Gove. For Gove, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was New Labour’s gravest sin. Tony Blair’s willingness to compromise with Sinn Féin reflected what Gove, then a reactionary polemicist, diagnosed as a corrosive moral laxity. In a pamphlet published in 2000, The Price of Peace, he even argued that the peace agreement should be torn up. Extracts were published in the Spectator, then edited by Johnson.

Yet Johnson did not truly share Gove’s zealous and deeply ideological brand of Unionism. Yes, he was given to sweeping denunciations of Republicanism in his own journalism. But they read like the sort of easy absolutes beloved by debaters, rather than sincerely held points of principle.

That much is obvious from Johnson’s conclusions upon meeting Martin McGuinness, then a Sinn Féin minister, during the first Stormont executive in May 2000. “The best hope now — and of course it is morally bankrupt, but not wholly despicable,” Johnson wrote in the Spectator, “is that the ‘peace process’ should grind on, the executive return, and Martin and his kind lose their instinct for terror, and discover the delights of spending taxpayers’ money on schools, and riding in Rovers paid for by the state he would destroy.”

Two decades on, Northern Ireland is once again at the top of the Tory agenda — or, rather, disrupting it. And Johnson is once again demonstrating a positively gymnastic capacity for flexibility.

The question of just how Ireland’s 310-mile border would be managed in the event that the UK leaves the EU has dogged Johnson ever since he declared for Brexit in February 2016. Then mayor of London, he insisted — on a visit to Northern Ireland, no less — that arrangements on the border would stay “absolutely unchanged” in the event of a Leave vote. “There’s been a free travel area between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland for, I think, getting on 100 years,” Johnson told the BBC. “There’s no reason why that should cease to be the case.”

Johnson was right, in one very narrow sense. The British and Irish governments did, in the event, manage to strike a deal to maintain passport-free travel. Theresa May and the EU agreed that arrangements on the border should remain unchanged, with no new physical infrastructure. But there was one big reason why that promise would always be unattainable: Johnson’s preference for leaving the EU single market and customs union.

Such a Brexit leaves the UK with an inevitable choice that Vote Leave never acknowledged: imposing new border infrastructure on the island of Ireland, or introducing checks on goods, food and livestock travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (as provided for in the so-called backstop plan to prevent a hard border). The former is unacceptable to the Irish government and with it the rest of the EU27. The latter is unacceptable to the Democratic Unionist Party MPs, who make up the government’s parliamentary majority. So much so that, along with Johnson’s fellow travellers in the European Research Group, they chose to kill May’s Brexit deal, rather than accept it.

So what, if anything, is Johnson’s solution? He has always rejected the government line that any new infrastructure would amount to a hard border in Ireland. Privately, he urged May to “stop the border becoming significantly harder”, rather than maintaining the status quo.

Johnson would go further still. In February 2018, he argued that managing the frontier need be no more difficult than administering the London congestion charge. "There's no border between Islington or Camden and Westminster,” he said, “but when I was mayor of London we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people travelling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks whatever."

That such solutions will not fly in Dublin or Brussels is precisely the reason why they have insisted on the backstop — which would effectively bind the UK into a customs union with the EU, and lead to new checks on goods imposed between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. After his resignation as foreign secretary in July 2018, Johnson made common cause with the DUP in seeking its removal from the withdrawal agreement.

He advanced the argument, in inimitable style, as the keynote speaker at the DUP’s annual conference that November. “If we wanted to do free trade deals, if we wanted to cut tariffs or vary our regulation, then we would have to leave Northern Ireland behind as an economic semi-colony of the EU, and we would be damaging the fabric of the Union with regulatory checks and even customs controls between GB and NI. No British Conservative government could or should sign up to anything of that kind.”

Yet Johnson’s commitment to the cause was not quite unconditional. Nine months earlier, while still at the Foreign Office, he had conceded in a private memo to No 10 that some checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea might be necessary. He would later fold in public in March 2019, voting for the very withdrawal agreement he told the DUP faithful no Tory should ever countenance at the third time of asking.

Now closer to Downing Street than ever before, Johnson has been absolved of that heresy. The presence on his campaign team of Gavin Williamson, who as chief whip negotiated the 2017 confidence and supply agreement with the DUP, will ensure a smoother working relationship than May ever enjoyed. But if Johnson wishes to leave the EU with a deal — as he insists is his preference — he will face the same impossible choice as his predecessor.

The only change to the backstop that the EU is likely to accept is that it applies, as originally intended, to Northern Ireland alone — with a border in the Irish Sea. If that price is too steep for Johnson, it will mean — by his own logic — a push for no-deal. In that event, finding a solution will be much more painful, and expensive, than the London congestion charge ever was. But if the would-be prime minister’s lack of firm principle and ideology on Ireland and the Union tells us anything, it is that some sort of accommodation with Brussels could be more likely than it looks.

This piece is taken from the Johnson audit series

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.