When Boris Johnson has nowhere to go, the nowhere he goes to is Northern Ireland. It is, for him, an empty space, a vacuum he can fill with any old blather that is useful to him at the time.
What suits him right now is to try to reassemble the old Brexit band of 2019 – the ERG and the DUP – in the hope that the forces that brought him to power will help keep him there.
Tearing up the Northern Ireland protocol to the withdrawal agreement he negotiated, signed and urged both parliament and the electorate to endorse, is just another raid on Northern Ireland’s treasure-house of grievance.
The needs and desires of the people of Northern Ireland are neither here nor there. NI stands for Not Interested.
Johnson revealed his true feelings about the place in 2018, when he was foreign secretary. In a secretly recorded speech to a private Tory meeting in London, he claimed that all the problems of the Irish Border could be solved with something like “when you swiped your Oyster card over a tube terminal, a tube gizmo”.
Play-acting war with Brussels has been a way of life, a habit of mind, even an addiction
He waved away the crisis that Brexit was threatening on the island of Ireland: “It’s so small and there are so few firms that actually use that border regularly, it’s just beyond belief that we’re allowing the tail to wag the dog in this way.”
This is what Northern Ireland is to Johnson: a small and irritating appendage. But he also realised that getting the Northern Ireland tail to wag the Westminster dog could actually be politically expedient.
The protocol was the itch the Brexit zealots would keep scratching. It could create enough agitation to convince them that their whole project is not (as it so obviously is) stuck in the doldrums of anticlimax. The grand old cause is alive!
Perhaps this twist was built into the whole Brexit narrative. Play-acting war with Brussels has been a way of life, a habit of mind, even an addiction. It has moulded political careers, supplied thousands of entertaining stories and outraged columns for journalist-politicians like Johnson, and given a shape to an otherwise inchoate English nationalism.
Actually leaving the European Union means this game is up – they don’t have Brussels bureaucrats to kick around any more.
Northern Ireland, and the protocol that was designed to recognise its unique circumstances, thus become important, not for their own sake, but as a way to get the old game going again. To most Tories, the protocol is like a football league that is being played elsewhere during the off-season in England – not all that interesting, but it fills an intolerable gap.
The degree to which it really doesn’t matter to them can be gauged from their indifference to Johnson’s wildly opposed claims about what the protocol is and what it means. It doesn’t bother them that he pronounced the protocol in parliament “a good arrangement . . . with the minimum possible bureaucratic consequences” and insisted that “it is fully compatible with the Good Friday agreement” – before claiming, as he does now, the precise opposite.
These contradictions don’t matter because such statements do not refer to a real place or even to the real text of an international treaty. The only reality they signify is the particular and contingent necessity of getting Johnson into power and keeping him there.
When, for example, Johnson stated in December 2019 that “there will be no checks on goods going from GB to NI, or NI to GB”, it was a category error to complain that this was a brazen lie.
The lie existed only in the actual world; the statement was in the Johnsonian metaverse. It was not about goods, GB or NI. It was about what was good for BJ.
Meanwhile, there is an actual Northern Ireland, a fragile polity with a divided society and an unresolved history of violent conflict. And there is an actual, highly imperfect, protocol.
It was devised quickly, to get Johnson out of a hole. And it is designed, not to create ideal conditions, but to limit the damage deliberately inflicted by his choice of a very hard Brexit.
Harm reduction is a messy business. Everybody, including the EU, acknowledges that there are problems of over-zealous implementation.
These problems are soluble: in October, the EU produced proposals which it says would lead to an 80 per cent reduction on the checks for GB food products destined for Northern Ireland shops and a 50 per cent cut in customs formalities.
The catch is that the EU thought it was trying to solve a real difficulty in a real place. The EU was trying to work on texts – Johnson is working on pretexts. He doesn’t need a solution. He needs a war.
Anyone with a vestige of a moral sensibility might realise that Northern Ireland has had its fill of wars and that there is a real one going on in Ukraine. Tearing up international treaties while denouncing Vladmir Putin’s contempt for international law might seem as idiotic as it is cynical.
But only in Ireland, Europe and other parts of the real world. Brexitland is another country. They do things differently there.