The latest UK proposals on Brexit reflect either an extraordinary ignorance of Northern Ireland or a willingness to risk the Belfast Agreement – and the progress of the last 20 years – to further the Johnson government's political interests.
The need to minimise the inevitable problems caused by a customs border on the island of Ireland is presented as a technical issue when, of course, it is so much more. The contortions necessary to keep the Democratic Unionist Party on side have created proposals which would be disastrous for the North's economy and bring with it wider dangers to peace.
At a simple level, this is about the technicalities of trade and ensuring rules are applied between two different customs regimes. But it is, of course, about more than that. It is about opening a new divide and potentially upsetting a delicate balance which has maintained peace on this island. Even at a practical level, what is proposed would cause huge upheaval to many businesses – North and South – and undermine cross-border trade.
Whatever Boris Johnson says, a customs border would require checks, infrastructure and a much higher level of policing and monitoring than currently takes place. It would be unworkable otherwise. But interventions of this kind would be toxic politically. The Irish Government has been wrestling with the need to impose such controls if there is a no-deal Brexit. It would have to do so, albeit hoping future negotiations might lead to their removal. But there is no way it could willingly sign up to them as part of a deal.
While claiming to support the Belfast Agreement, the Johnson government is showing a wilful disregard for it and for the commitments the UK made
The UK plan does make a nod to the all-island economy – and a significant one – by suggesting it would be one zone in terms of product rules and regulations. This means related checks would take place in the Irish Sea as manufactured products, animals and food crossed from Britain. However the Northern Ireland Assembly, currently in abeyance, could vote in 2025 to either stick with EU regulations or return to the UK's regulatory ambit. This idea of a potential time-limit will not go down well in Brussels and Dublin, even if there is a willingness to give the North's politicians an input into deciding future arrangements.
It remains to be seen if these proposals will lead to real negotiations between the EU and the UK in the run up to the summit in the middle of October. In any event, what has been presented is not the basis for a workable plan.
While claiming to support the Belfast Agreement, the Johnson government is showing a wilful disregard for it and for the commitments the UK made in negotiations with the EU in December 2017. The most credible conclusion is that the prime minister and those around him have anticipated that this offer will be rejected and their primary objective in framing it in such a manner is their own domestic political advantage.