As Boris Johnson prepares to change the Northern Ireland Protocol, Jonathan Lis explores how his recklessness, a hard Brexit and lasting questions of identity are threatening peace once again

It was not very long ago that people began to talk about Northern Ireland as if it were a normal place. The Good Friday Agreement entrenched, power-sharing in full operation, the province ran – for the most part – smoothly and peacefully. Of course, the main parties disagreed about big and small issues – but everyone had something they wanted and agreed to make the process work. The political crisis which brought down the Northern Ireland Executive in 2017 was not about sectarianism or the constitution but the misspending of public funds.

Today in Northern Ireland the leaders of one of the two main communities argue that their side of the constitutional equilibrium has been upended. The Executive is deadlocked and the nominal First Minister cannot take up her post.

And the UK Government is using the situation as a pretext to suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol in whole or in part, thereby ripping up its Brexit Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, breaking international law, and inviting a full-blown trade war with its closest neighbours.

Amid all the talk of crisis, it is easy to dismiss the political earthquake that took place last month. A nationalist party – Sinn Féin – won an election in Northern Ireland for the first time. The borders of Northern Ireland were drawn, quite literally, to prevent that from ever happening. It is supposed to have a built-in unionist majority – that was its only reason to exist.

The result does not bring reunification any closer in practical terms. A border poll would have to be called by the Secretary of State on the basis of clear evidence for popular support. Even if that happened, many thousands of voters who opted for the non-aligned Alliance Party in this election would choose to remain in the UK. And yet a rubicon has been crossed. 

Sinn Féin is no longer a minority party or playing second fiddle – it won a clear mandate as the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and its Vice-President, Michelle O’Neill, has every right to take up her position as First Minister. That, of course, is a part of the problem. 

For all the talk of unionist concerns about the Protocol – which requires checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK – there are strong suspicions that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is refusing to support the Executive on principle. For many unionists it is unthinkable to play ‘deputy’ to Sinn Féin, even if the posts are hierarchised only in name. The leadership of Northern Ireland is for unionists, and if they can’t have control of the ball, they will pick it up and go home. 

Imagine if the EU WasBehaving as the UK Is

Chris Grey

The DUP has only itself to blame for what is happening.

The party was warned in 2016 that Brexit would divide people on the island politically and economically, requiring new trade barriers and therefore a new trade border – and still it supported it. It has since done everything it can to avoid taking responsibility for its colossal error or even admitting it made one – a process in which it has consistently put its own electoral interests ahead of its people’s prosperity. Its ensuing self-sabotage has now accidentally ensured the result it most feared. As morality tales go, this one is on the nose.

And yet, of course, the DUP is genuinely aggrieved. A border in the Irish Sea, justifiably or otherwise, makes it feel cut-off from Great Britain and its internal market. The more Britain diverges on regulation, the further that gulf will appear. The DUP was almost inconceivably foolish to believe Boris Johnson when he denied a sea border would ever exist but, unlike him, they at least adhere to a basic political principle.

The DUP and the UK Government are mutually propelling the current crisis. Both have put short-term calculations first; both are bad at politics; both are furious they cannot have their own way and are sacrificing their voters and the UK economy, respectively, to show it. And yet they are not equally culpable. 

The DUP may have been gullible, naive and petulant, but it is the UK Government that has been uniquely cynical and dishonest from the start.

In recent weeks and months, the Prime Minister has again been resurrecting the excuses for why the Protocol needs to be unilaterally modified and fabricating some new ones for good measure. The demands are onerous, he says. They were unforeseen. They threaten the Good Friday Agreement. He even wrote in the Belfast Telegraph that the Government didn’t anticipate the shocks of the pandemic, war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis.

The problem is that everything he says is either sophistry or a lie – it doesn’t matter that unpredictable world events have occurred since 2019. The Protocol was negotiated for all circumstances and for all time. If the Government wasn’t prepared for difficult events, it should not have negotiated something so precarious. Indeed, if circumstances are now so unfavourable that we need to cancel the Protocol, we surely need to cancel Brexit itself. 

“There is no disguising the fact that the delicate balance created in 1998 has been upset,” he wrote, having himself upset it. “I agreed [the Protocol] on the basis that it protected the Good Friday Agreement,” he told Channel 4, having spent the previous three years endangering it. This is, after all, the man who, as Foreign Secretary, compared a border which claimed more than 3,500 lives to the boundary between two London boroughs.

Johnson, as ever, projects his failures onto his opponents and accuses them of that which he is guilty of. He accuses the EU of being insincere in its desire to protect the Good Friday Agreement when, in fact, Brussels was prioritising it before London even acknowledged it was an issue.

The Prime Minister’s most revealing comment was to Channel 4: “I hoped and believed that our friends would not necessarily want to apply the Protocol in quite the way that they have,” he said. In other words, because he had no wish to implement an international agreement, he assumed that the other side wouldn’t either. It encapsulates Johnson’s solipsism – because all he understands is duplicity in the compulsive pursuit of self-interest, he cannot conceive of anyone else behaving in good faith. He cannot even understand them working towards interests that aren’t his.

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The EU has applied the Protocol in just the way it said it would: to the letter. Indeed, it has tolerated both the UK’s extended grace periods and faithlessness and acted more leniently and constructively than many imagined. There was no secret in the Protocol. It announced what it was and the Prime Minister agreed to it. Not only that, he used it as the foundational pillar of an entire election campaign. Opponents warned what that ‘oven-ready’ deal entailed and Johnson dismissed them as liars and fearmongers. 

The first problem for the Government is that new legislation will not help anything. The DUP has already stated that it will not consider joining the Executive until legislation has been enacted, not simply tabled. Meanwhile, the moment it is enacted the EU will retaliate.

The second, much bigger problem, is the Government’s stupidity. As Johnson himself identified, we are dealing with crises that seemed impossible just three years ago: recovery from a pandemic, a major war in Europe, and an economic earthquake hitting every citizen in the country. 

Politically, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the UK has made a great play of European unity. Britain and the EU have cooperated closely on sanctions, assistance and rhetoric. Beginning a major new political crisis defies not only all logic but the key objectives of solidarity and coordination. The only person who could possibly cheer it is Vladimir Putin himself.

Even more astonishing are the economic ramifications. The cost of living crisis is already pushing millions of people closer towards poverty or deeper into it. The Bank of England Governor, a man not renowned for hyperbole, has warned of “apocalyptic” rises in food prices. It is just possible that a trade war with our largest export partner – and one of our largest suppliers of food – will exacerbate that crisis.

The move to dis-apply parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol are not about improving lives but scoring political points. It may be an elaborate bluff and Parliament may reject it. The point is that the Government is comfortable threatening to wreck Britain’s economy and international reputation – and stoking the embers of a recent civil war. Whatever comes next, that is enough to damn it for all time.

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