LONDON – Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called for a return to normal politics in Northern Ireland on Monday, even though his government was ready to draft legislation that could allow it to give up part of the trading system that has ruled the North since Britain left. European Union.
The gap between Mr Johnson’s comforting words and his government’s potentially devastating actions illustrates the amazing political dynamics of Northern Ireland, which remains a long-standing source of tension more than two years after Brexit.
During a rare visit to Northern Ireland, Mr Johnson called on her political parties to rejoin the government that shares power in the territory, following legislative elections earlier this month in which the main Irish nationalist party, Sinn Féin, became the largest party for the first time in the 101-year history of Northern Ireland.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which calls for Northern Ireland to be part of the United Kingdom and second only to Sinn Féin, has refused to return to government unless there is a legal structure governing trade within Brexit known as the Northern Ireland Protocol. completely revised.
Mr Johnson has promised to revise the protocol with the European Union, and a new law, due to be announced by the British government on Tuesday, could allow him to unilaterally relinquish part of it if the talks fail.
But in a column published Monday in The Belfast Telegraph, Mr Johnson seemed to be signaling a more conciliatory course with Brussels. “Those who want to repeal the protocol, instead of seeking change, are focusing on the wrong thing,” he wrote.
Mr Johnson said the agreement was a prerequisite for Northern Ireland’s hybrid status as a member of the United Kingdom, bordering a member of the European Union, the Republic of Ireland. He said he had “in good faith” negotiated with Brussels, a statement that some in the EU may view with jaundice, given Britain’s desire to rewrite the deal, which took years.
Unionists complain that a protocol requiring border controls on goods passing from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland has killed a wedge between the North and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Experts on Northern Ireland said the parties were likely to find a compromise on issues such as border checks. The trouble is that the debate is not only about identity issues, but also about trade mechanisms.
“Business, by and large, doesn’t want this to come in,” said Julian Smith, who served as Britain’s secretary general in Northern Ireland from 2019 to 2020 and is credited with overcoming a previous stalemate between the parties.
Prolonged confrontation, he said, could bring more political tensions to the forefront and make the deal unattainable. “The longer it lasts, the more red lines there are, the more positions that can be out of reach stand out,” Mr Smith said.
Politics is not just in Northern Ireland. Mr Johnson’s staunch supporters of Brexit in the Conservative Party also dislike the protocol and are pushing for the prime minister to demand change from the European Union.
Mr. Johnson, whose status in the party was weakened by the scandal surrounding illegal parties on Downing Streetseeks to soften his right flank, and a fight with Brussels for Northern Ireland would be one way to do so.
“This government is largely performative,” said Jonathan Powell, a former chief of staff to Tony Blair, prime minister during the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, a 1998 pact that ended decades of religious violence in Northern Ireland. Mr Powell noted that Liz Trass, the foreign minister who insists on passing the legislation, is the main candidate to replace Mr Johnson if he is expelled.
The prime minister is facing opposing pressure from the Biden administration, which has warned him not to take any steps that could jeopardize the Good Friday agreement. Downing Street has dismissed speculation that Mr Johnson’s more diplomatic tone in The Belfast Telegraph was the result of White House warnings.
Ms. Rabbit’s legislation, if adopted, would be an alternative to the use of Article 16 of the Brexit Agreement, which gives either party the right to suspend parts of it under certain conditions. This is likely to lead to a number of deadlines that could be used to put pressure on the European Union to offer concessions.
EU leaders are expected to respond to Ms. Rabbit coldly, with diplomats saying they do not want to exacerbate the tense situation. But after years of bidding on Brexit, they are reluctant to break the agreement reached by Mr Johnson, who called it “ready for the furnace” during the 2019 election, when he promised to “bring Brexit”.
The Europeans proposed some significant changes last year and they see the UK model of pocket concessions just to come back to demand more.
“It seems that the British approach to the protocol is very much driven by the hard line,” said Katie Hayward, a professor of political sociology at Queen’s University in Belfast. “That’s why the EU will be concerned that any concessions will be just like feeding a crocodile.”
Some diplomats also suspect that Britain will try to split the bloc from 27 countries, possibly using the goodwill it has gained thanks to the military support of European Union members who are threatened by an aggressive Russia.
As Britain faces a land war in Ukraine and upheavals in supply chains that have raised food and fuel prices, this seems like an unfavorable time to trigger a trade war with a much larger European Union.
If Ms. Rabbit’s plan is unlikely to satisfy the European Union, analysts are also skeptical that he will persuade the Democratic Unionists to allow the resumption of power in Belfast. At the moment, Democratic Unionists seem to be digging in their heels, reflecting fears that the party could be bypassed by a smaller and tougher union party, Traditional Unionist Voice.
“We have heard the words, now we need to see action,” said Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionists, before meeting with Mr. Johnson.
Mr Powell, who has worked extensively on Northern Ireland diplomacy, has expressed concern that political paralysis could escalate into violence, especially in connection with the traditional season of Protestant marches approaching July. Last year Protesters threw stones and gasoline checkers on police officers in protest of what they called “Brexit betrayal”.
However, there were no signs of urgency on the part of the unions. “They feel they have the attention of the UK and the EU, and they want to get as much out of it as possible, given that it could go away pretty quickly,” said Professor Hayward.