In his general election campaign of 2019, Boris Johnson promised the country that he would “get Brexit done”. He has failed. Once again he is planning a law to allow him to repudiate parts of the UK’s Brexit deal on Northern Ireland, on which he campaigned. This would destroy the UK’s reputation for keeping its word, invite a parallel EU repudiation of its free trade deal with the UK, enrage the Biden administration and divide the west.
At the time of the referendum campaign in 2016, the then Irish foreign minister remarked to me that the EU is a “peace project”. It was true of France and Germany. It was also true of Ireland and the UK. The fact that the Republic and the UK were members of the EU had made borders almost irrelevant. This had facilitated the peace process and might even be what made it possible.
“You break it, you own it”, as the late Colin Powell told George W Bush before the invasion of Iraq. This possibility did not seem to cross the minds of Brexiters. Brexit would disrupt the EU ties between the two countries, which had facilitated the Good Friday Agreement. The Leave campaign ignored this issue. Remainers mostly did, too. But they had the excuse that they were not proposing to wreck the relationship.
To their credit, Tony Blair and John Major, joint progenitors of the Good Friday Agreement, warned of the consequences of Brexit in a visit to Londonderry in June 2016. Blair argued that the only alternative to controls on the land border “would have to be checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, which would be plainly unacceptable as well”. Major warned it would be “a historic mistake” to do anything that risked destabilising the Good Friday Agreement. They were both correct. Alas, they were ignored.
After the referendum, the Brexiters insisted that their narrow victory mandated them to choose the hardest possible Brexit, whatever its cost. They rejected the single market. They also repudiated Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, which would have kept the UK in the customs union. Only last week, May reminded the House that “I put a deal before the House that met the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement and enabled us not to have a border down the Irish Sea or between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Sadly, the Democratic Unionist party and others across the House chose to reject that.” Among those “others” was the ambitious Johnson.
Once in power, Johnson made his deal to “get Brexit done”, the one he now wishes to change unilaterally. Then he said that “Northern Ireland has a great deal. You keep free movement and access to the single market but you also have unfettered access to GB.” But he was determined to take access to that very single market from the rest of the UK. He also insisted his “great deal” would not mean border controls in the Irish Sea, though it obviously would. What he should also have known is that the greater the divergence between the UK and EU — over phytosanitary regulations, for example — the more onerous those border checks would have to be. Is he unable to admit these self-evident realities even to himself?
In a recent speech justifying unilateral repudiation, Lord Frost, Johnson’s negotiator, argued that “The detail of the protocol’s provisions was essentially imposed under duress because we had no ‘walk away’ option.” As a matter of fact, we did. But it would have been too costly to exercise. In these negotiations the EU was (and is) in a stronger position, because it matters far more to the UK than them. This is power, which matters in international relations. Who knew? Not Frost, it seems.
Having disrupted Northern Ireland, the leader of the Brexiters blames the predicament on EU recalcitrance. Yet the difficulty lies not with the deal’s substance: the Northern Ireland economy is outperforming the UK’s, which is, predictably, performing poorly post-Brexit. Nor is it with majority opinion in Northern Ireland: 56 per cent of its voters rejected Brexit in the 2016 referendum. The May 2022 elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly have also delivered 53 members in favour of the protocol and only 37 against. The problem is with the unionists. But the unionist parties together only received 40 per cent of the vote in May. Unionist parties had favoured Brexit in 2016. But what, one wonders, did these people expect to follow? Why did they welcome so risky a choice?
Ironically, our government, which treated the votes of 16.1mn Remainers with contempt when it chose almost the hardest and most damaging possible version of Brexit, wishes to give fewer than 350,000 unionist voters in Northern Ireland and a vastly smaller number of potential trouble makers the power to break the withdrawal agreement with the EU, even though this would damage the prospects of the rest of the country. “It is time”, Frost says, “to put our own interests first”. Indeed, we should. The interest of the British people lies in the best and most stable possible relations with the EU, our biggest trading partner and closest neighbour. It is not to risk a deeper decline in UK trade in response to threats of violence from a tiny minority of British people.
The UK government must engage cooperatively in efforts to make trade with Northern Ireland smoother. But the EU should also engage, recognising that Brexit has been helping it to make far faster progress than it would have done if the UK had remained a member. Gratitude for removal of this obstacle should encourage it to be conciliatory. But the decision is ultimately for the UK. Europeans are eternal neighbours, share values and have common foes. The UK has to keep its promises. This depressing version of Groundhog Day must now end.