Diarmaid Ferriter: Talk of integrity of union way beyond sell-by date

Johnson speaks of Belfast Agreement’s ‘delicate balance’ but is ignorant of it

British prime minister Boris Johnson: blithely ignoring all the  complications of Brexit. Photograph: Finnbarr Webster

British prime minister Boris Johnson: blithely ignoring all the complications of Brexit. Photograph: Finnbarr Webster

 

The contempt for Boris Johnson was palpable in Edinburgh last week during a discussion at the city’s book festival on Brexit and Ireland.

Expressions of empathy with Irish frustrations were hardly surprising given that 62 per cent of Scots who voted in 2016 were against Brexit, but the disdain expressed for London-based Tories has intensified recently in tandem with their crude sloganeering about being prepared to triumphantly exit the EU without a deal.

As pointed out by the European Movement in Scotland, before he became prime minister, Johnson declared “there is no plan for no-deal, because we’re going to get a great deal”.

The Scottish government suggests a no-deal could wipe £11 billion off Scotland’s economy “in under a year” and lead to job losses of 10-25 per cent. The Scots activists who want to stop a no-deal are encouraging people who share their fears to write to John Bercow, speaker of the House of Commons, to urge him to allow MPs to debate and vote down a no-deal Brexit.

Scottish nationalists could soon be determined to launch a new independence crusade

Therein lies the dilemma for Scottish nationalists; they need to appeal to London to try and prevent damage to Scotland.

How long more they will tolerate that indignity is just another of the questions raised by the Brexit fallout; the more the peripheries come under strain, the shallower all the talk of safeguarding the “constitutional integrity” of the UK seems.

The DUP, for example, has been vocal about NI’s union with Scotland, England and Wales being its “guiding star”.

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Back in 2014 during the Scottish referendum campaign, Peter Robinson as NI’s first minister made a somewhat desperate plea for Scotland to remain in the UK, as unionists feared losing their closest relatives in the UK: “I speak as a unionist but also as an Ulster Scot . . . We cherish the relationship that we have. Nowhere else in the UK would the bonds be more tightly drawn between any other part of the UK from NI’s point of view than with Scotland.”

No-deal Brexit

Pious talk of UK bonds, integrity and internal cherishing is now beyond its political sell-by date. Scottish nationalists could soon be determined to launch a new independence crusade.

In 2012, two years before the referendum on independence, only 28 per cent of Scots wanted to leave the UK. By September 2014, that percentage rose to 45 per cent.

Johnson pedals the lie that 'the backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast Agreement'. He does not know what this 'delicate balance' involves

The most recently published poll suggested a figure of 52 per cent in favour of independence, underlining that the SNP still has a tough sell on its hands but can also be optimistic given that this polling is before the consequences of a no-deal Brexit become apparent.

Another factor is the impact Brexit might have for UK devolution as it currently exists; if a British government is intent on Westminster retaining parts of the devolved powers it will regain from the EU after Brexit, in relation to agriculture and fisheries, for example, in order to bolster the UK internal market, that can only foster more resentment against a London centralisation; the same might be asserted about potential direct rule for Northern Ireland.

Complexity ignored

Blithely ignoring all these complications, of course, is Boris Johnson. His letter this week to the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, was nonsense; he peddles the lie that “the backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast Agreement”.

Johnson does not know what this “delicate balance” involves; this is the same Johnson who last year suggested the backstop would mean “violating the Act of Union of 1800, and the very basis on which this country is founded”.

What he ignores, or is not aware of, is the Northern Ireland Act of 1998 to give effect to the agreement which explicitly stipulates that NI will remain part of the UK as long as a majority there wish for it to do so. The backstop does not alter that.

Consider, for example, the assessment of Vernon Bogdanor, one of Britain’s most renowned constitutional experts and a pillar of the British establishment who is hardly carrying a torch for Irish nationalists: “While the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement does not explicitly require a soft border, that was because it was assumed that Britain would remain in the EU.

But the agreement’s provisions for North-South co-operation clearly require a degree of congruence between trading rules in the two parts of the island of Ireland. That indeed is the basis of the backstop, a backstop confined to very limited areas, primarily those necessary for North-South co-operation under the GFA.

From this point of view, the DUP’s hostility to the backstop is self-defeating since a hard border could lead nationalists in NI to call for Irish unity so as to achieve a closer relationship with nationalists in the Republic. The backstop, paradoxically, is a guarantee for NI, not a threat.”

It provides the kind of “delicate balance” that NI needs, just as the hard won Belfast Agreement does.

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