After several months of brinkmanship, Britain’s Conservative government has decided to launch a direct assault on the Northern Ireland Protocol of Boris Johnson’s Brexit agreement. Instead of haggling with the European Union for concessions over the way it operates the protocol, Johnson’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, has announced legislation to override it altogether. The EU has responded with threats of legal action and a trade war.
It’s hard to disentangle the long-term strategy that may underpin this move from more immediate political concerns. Johnson has recently survived a no-confidence vote in which two-fifths of Conservative MPs wanted him to resign as party leader. Truss is positioning herself for a future leadership contest if Johnson falls at the next hurdle.
One thing is perfectly clear, however. The latest post-Brexit crisis, with its destabilizing implications for Northern Irish politics, is the price for Boris Johnson’s electoral triumph at the end of 2019. A range of political actors in Britain — including some of those who are now deploring Johnson’s behavior — gladly chose to pay that price because they were so hostile to the alternative: a left-wing government with a reform program that might have begun to repair the country’s social fabric after decades of ruling-class vandalism.
All in This Together
Tom McTague, London correspondent for the Atlantic, inadvertently put his finger on the key point in a column that sought to explain the present crisis:
By leaving the EU, and doing so in the way that it did — exiting the EU’s economic zone as well as its political structure — Britain created a problem that did not previously exist: namely, the need for a trade and customs border between Britain and the EU . . . to “get Brexit done” after years of turmoil, Johnson agreed to a divorce deal with the EU that placed the economic border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain — within the UK — to avoid requiring checks on goods traveling between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland . . . Throughout this whole sorry saga, British officials were perfectly clear that the deals being negotiated were not practically enforceable. By the end, everyone just needed a deal, something that would end the Brexit chaos. In the years that have passed since the agreement was signed, the Protocol has never been fully implemented because to do so would be politically intolerable.
Anyone who followed British politics in the run-up to the 2019 general election will find McTague’s retrospective summary quite laughable. Far from being “perfectly clear that the deals being negotiated were not practically enforceable,” Boris Johnson and his allies loudly insisted that they had an excellent, “oven-ready” Brexit deal that would put the matter to rest for good, if only voters gave them a clear majority in parliament.
When the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stated the fact that Johnson’s Brexit deal would create trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Britain, Johnson brazenly lied about it. Most of the British media gave Johnson a free pass for his mendacity, reporting on the controversy as if it were a matter of two politicians disagreeing with each other rather than a question of truth and fiction. Perhaps McTague means that British civil servants were candid about the deal being unworkable when they spoke to him off the record. But that was certainly not the message conveyed to the public at the time.
McTague’s assertion that “everyone just needed a deal, something that would end the Brexit chaos” is equally misleading. In fact it was Boris Johnson who needed a deal to get him out of a tricky situation. Johnson’s position in the second half of 2019 was much less secure than it now appears in hindsight. If his high-wire act over Brexit had ended in failure, the only alternative government was a Labour one with the most radical program for a generation. McTague’s understanding of “everyone” tacitly excludes all the people who badly needed that program to be carried out.
Johnson became the Conservative leader in the summer of 2019 after promising to “get Brexit done” by October 31. His party’s right-wing faction had opposed Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement because it didn’t create enough distance between their state and the economic structures of the EU. For May and her negotiating partners, this relative proximity was necessary to avoid the return of a hard border between the two parts of Ireland. The new Tory chief promised to negotiate a fresh deal that would be visibly “harder,” in the Brexit idiom, than May’s.
Johnson’s first plan was to call a snap general election at the start of autumn, to take place before the October deadline. That way he could declare his willingness to push through Brexit without a deal if all else failed and win back support from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Crucially, Johnson wouldn’t have to follow through on his no-deal rhetoric this side of an election.
If the gamble paid off, he would have the large parliamentary majority May lacked after 2017, and the personal authority to get his own Brexit deal over the line at Westminster, even if it was very similar to May’s. Figures like Farage might still cry betrayal, but there wouldn’t be another election for several years, by which time public opinion would presumably have moved on from Brexit.
The Tory leader needed Labour and the other opposition parties to cooperate with this scheme: because of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act that David Cameron’s government enacted in 2011, two-thirds of Westminster MPs had to vote for an early election. However, Johnson found himself boxed in when the parliamentary opposition decided to block his plan. For a few weeks in early autumn, it looked as if Johnson had overreached himself and might soon be on the political ropes.
Fortunately for Johnson, there was another option available to him. Theresa May had ruled out separate arrangements for Northern Ireland that would distinguish it from the rest of the UK. If Johnson took a different view, he could sidestep the question of the Irish border instead of banging his head against it. The British prime minister soon cut a deal with his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, that laid the basis for the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The protocol is over sixty pages long, but its key point was simple: Northern Ireland would have a closer relationship with the EU than Great Britain, enabling the latter to leave the European single market and customs union with no ifs, ands, or buts. Armed with this new agreement, Johnson rallied the pro-Brexit camp behind him and pressed once again for an early election, getting his way this time. Labour was now committed to holding a second referendum on Brexit, a policy that was deeply unpopular with its own Leave-supporting voters — about a third of the party’s electorate in 2017. The Tories secured a landslide victory in December 2019 by gobbling up Labour-held seats with a majority of Leave voters in England and Wales.
Of course, there was another way of resolving the border issue in Ireland. Labour’s Brexit plan, which the party set out at the beginning of 2019, and which was met with a positive response from EU officials, would have made either a hard border or trade barriers in the Irish Sea unnecessary. In the summer of 2019, this soft-Brexit option was much more popular (or much less unpopular) with British public opinion than either Johnson’s hard-Brexit model or staying in the EU.
But its political effect would have been to empower a left-led Labour Party while dividing and demoralizing the Conservatives. Many of those political and media figures who flaunted their opposition to Brexit had no desire to see that happen and would much rather see Johnson prevail.
Boris Johnson’s former advisor Dominic Cummings has been emitting a steady stream of invective against the Tory leader since the two men fell out in 2020. We should take some of his claims with a pinch of salt. However, there’s no reason to doubt his honesty when he described Johnson’s thinking about the Northern Ireland Protocol in the final months of 2019. According to Cummings, the plan was always to “ditch bits we didn’t like after whacking Corbyn.”
Some of those who are now clucking with disapproval at Johnson’s behavior had exactly the same order of priorities. The editorial board of the Financial Times expressed its horror this week at the “poisonous” bill introduced by Johnson’s government and the “farcical” legal arguments that accompanied it:
A prime minister enfeebled by his own lack of personal discipline is now using Northern Ireland to win over Brexit zealots in his own party. Some of the demands are for the benefit of English right-wingers, not unionists. Tory MPs of sounder judgment should help bury this legislation as quickly as possible. It is one thing to have a prime minister who does not observe lockdown rules. It is another to be careless with the international rules-based order.
Johnson’s lack of personal integrity and the main features of his deal with the EU were both matters of public record at the time of the 2019 general election. What did the FT have to say on that occasion? After going through the motions of wishing a plague on both houses, its leader presented Johnson as the lesser of two evils. Even if he planned to carry out “the hardest and most economically damaging Brexit,” as the FT put it, Johnson was at least committed to preserving the legacy of Margaret Thatcher:
The party most distant from FT values — and whose policies are most perilous — is Labour under Mr Corbyn. Its socialist blueprint would replace a thriving market economy with a statist model. Labour aims to reverse, not revise, the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s . . . we recognize that many in the business community and beyond will inevitably conclude they must vote Conservative, however reluctantly, as the only way to keep Mr Corbyn from power. While a hung parliament might, in theory, allow Brexit to be rethought, this too would risk ceding dangerous influence to the Labour leader.
The FT might sigh wistfully about what lay ahead for Northern Ireland — “creating a border in the Irish Sea risks weakening the cohesion of the UK” — but this danger clearly paled in comparison to Labour’s “most perilous” plan to take rail, mail, water, and energy into public ownership.
The paper’s editorial was an unusually candid expression of a viewpoint that was clearly widespread in the British power elite. The terms of Britain’s relationship with the EU were ultimately much less important in those circles than maintaining the subordinate position of the country’s working class.
Ireland’s British Problem
From that perspective, everything has worked out swimmingly since autumn 2019. If the Tories trip themselves up over Brexit or some other issue, the main opposition party is now in the hands of a reliably conservative clique who have no intention of tampering with the FT’s beloved “Thatcherite revolution.” But the price of restoring a certain kind of stability in London was to stoke up fresh political tensions in Belfast.
Apart from the British Labour left, the biggest losers from Johnson’s Brexit deal so far have been the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). In last month’s Northern Ireland Assembly election, the DUP suffered the humiliation of being overtaken by Sinn Féin after losing a big chunk of their electorate. Many unionist voters were understandably furious with the DUP for making such a mess of the political challenges with which Brexit confronted them.
In the aftermath of the Assembly election, DUP leaders did not rule out going back into a power-sharing Executive with a Sinn Féin first minister. For all the symbolic importance of having a nationalist politician occupy the region’s top post, it wouldn’t give Sinn Féin any extra powers. Nor would it mean that a referendum on Irish unity was likely to be successful in the short run.
However, the Democratic Unionists did insist on action over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which they bitterly opposed, before they would agree to restore the local government. Johnson and Truss have set the bar for such action very high with this week’s proposed legislation. It might have been possible to extract some face-saving concessions from the EU over how the protocol is operated, allowing the DUP to beat a dignified retreat. That will now be much harder to pull off.
Force and Consent
The Tories have also planted a suspect device in Northern Ireland’s political culture by insisting that “cross-community consent” is necessary for the protocol or whatever may replace it. In other words, they believe that there ought to be parallel majorities in favor of any arrangement within the unionist and nationalist communities.
Johnson and Truss have justified this position with reference to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998. In fact, the GFA contains two separate definitions of consent. For constitutional change in the status of Northern Ireland, a simple majority is required. For the region’s internal governance, there is a more complex system of cross-community weighting between self-defined unionist and nationalist parties.
The GFA didn’t say which, if any, of these definitions of consent should apply to the question of Northern Ireland’s relationship with the EU, for the obvious reason that nobody considered a British exit from the Union plausible back in 1998. Neither definition was useful for the pro-Brexit side after the referendum of June 2016. The region had a Remain majority of 56 percent, so there wasn’t even a simple majority in favor of leaving the EU, let alone a majority among nationalist voters, who were overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit.
In the years following the referendum, the DUP loudly and repeatedly insisted that this lack of consent, whether regional or communal, didn’t matter one iota: the pro-Leave majority across the whole of the UK was the only majority that counted. DUP leaders only discovered the idea that cross-community consent was required for a particular form of Brexit when the Northern Ireland Protocol reared its head.
Unsurprisingly, nationalist parties are not willing to accept this selective application of the consent principle when it suits the DUP. The same is true of the liberal Alliance Party, which defines itself as neither nationalist or unionist and came third in last month’s election.
Johnson’s government has now thrown its weight behind the DUP’s understanding of consent, even though it previously accepted that a simple majority would suffice. Article 18 of the protocol states that the Northern Ireland Assembly should have the opportunity to vote on it at four-year intervals. If such a vote were to be held tomorrow, there would be a majority of Assembly members in favor.
As the RTÉ journalist Tony Connelly notes, the British government’s new line has implications for a future plebiscite on Irish unity:
Senior Irish figures wonder if, having unilaterally created a new role for the cross-community mechanism because the Protocol allegedly impacts on the sovereignty of Northern Ireland, Downing Street might be tempted to extend it to areas within the GFA itself, such as the provision for a border poll. “The Protocol doesn’t impact on the sovereignty of Northern Ireland,” says one Irish source. “But if people are now arguing that a cross-community vote is required, what does that mean for a border poll, which does impact on the sovereignty of Northern Ireland? By the same logic people would say, yes we need to have a cross community vote on that as well.”
In layman’s terms, it’s an ungodly mess, and would remain one even if Johnson and Truss decide to abandon their latest scheme. If things go downhill from here, we should remember who to blame.