Finn McRedmond: Johnson plays NI as a Brexit bargaining chip
Idea London holds North’s interests and security on a par with its own is gone
Sabre-rattling, megaphone diplomacy, Brexit brinkmanship: all terms that are flying about to describe the British government’s latest political gambit in the Brexit saga, as the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, confirmed a piece of legislation would “break international law in a very specific and limited way”.
In the four years since the Brexit referendum it is hard to think of a moment that has left so many jaws on the floor – not just across the European Union and closer to home in Government Buildings, but so too among vast swathes of the British political establishment.
That the UK government is even floating the idea of breaking international law – via a Bill that may see the UK renege on commitments made in the Withdrawal Agreement less than a year ago – is a move that will deepen the rifts (profound and far-reaching as they already are) between the EU and Britain at a critical moment. And one that will see Northern Ireland face even greater uncertainty over its future as a no-deal Brexit looms large.
The following questions are on everyone’s minds: Is this a tactic to frighten the EU into offering greater concessions in trade negotiations? Or is this a bid from Boris Johnson to assuage the concerns of restless Brexiteers vis-a-vis a border in the Irish Sea? Is it in fact a move to ultimately force the EU to walk away from negotiations, clearing the path for a puritanical no-deal Brexit so many of Johnson’s advisers clearly desire?
These are not merely academic concerns. Whatever the British government is trying to achieve has not gone down well. Simon Coveney warned that Northern Ireland was “too fragile” to be used as a pawn in the Brexit negotiations. Micheál Martin, in what is perhaps the understatement of the century, warned “it has the potential to be divisive”. Meanwhile, Michelle O’Neill, leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, took a characteristically stronger stance, claiming the move would be a “treacherous betrayal”.
Whatever we think of the manoeuvre, it certainly makes the Sun’s infamous claims from last August over Leo Varadkar’s “suicidal failures of statesmanship” ring a little hollow.
Feelings are running high. If we have learned anything from the past four years, however, it is that this is to be expected. We should not forget that Brexit has seen two elections; countless government defeats; a minority government beholden to the whims of 10 DUP MPs; a spate of civil service resignations; a prorogued parliament; the rise and fall of a new UK party; the fragility of the union exposed; and countless Conservative MPs lose the party whip.
We have been met with the now all-too-familiar mudslinging between all involved
And along with the highly febrile politics, we have been met with the now all-too-familiar mudslinging between all involved. On Wednesday morning, usual suspect the Express ran with the headline: “He finally gets it! Leo Varadkar panics as Boris Johnson’s Brexit gamble hits home”. (There is more than one way to skin a cat, this being a particularly creative attempt from the editorial board of the Express.)
So too have we seen Charles Moore write in the Telegraph a few days prior that it’s time for the European Union to get off its “Irish high horse”. And who can forget the litany of writing seeking to cast Varadkar as “naive”, “ill-informed” and “arrogant”. Commentator Ruth Dudley Edwards once called him a “useful idiot”.
So the events of this week might feel like groundhog day. But we ought to be careful in indulging the rhetoric of swashbuckling Brexiteers and their friends in the UK press – designed to obfuscate bad policymaking or their own failures in statesmanship; aimed at redirecting blame to the nasty bureaucrats in Brussels. And so too should we resist the inclination to seek comfort in set-piece speeches and tweets by the likes of Europe’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier – reassuring though they might be.
Behind the oratory, and the countless ink spilled, we ought to look at the substance behind these diplomatic rows spurned by the Brexit crisis. And unfortunately this week, that substance is somehow even more troubling than curious claims about breaking “international law in a very specific and limited way”.
Whatever is lost in collateral is worthy sacrifice for Johnson’s chosen calling card: Brexit come what may
Because whether this is an actual threat to renege on the Withdrawal Agreement or mere “sabre rattling” negotiating tactics is of secondary concern. It is not indicative of a government confident of its direction of travel. And it reveals once again what has always been the case: Johnson and friends favour political expediency above all else. Shortsighted pragmatism trumps principle. And whatever is lost in collateral is worthy sacrifice for Johnson’s chosen calling card: Brexit come what may.
And that collateral is not just Britain’s reputation for respecting the rule of law; nor is it the trust required between both sides of the negotiating table to hammer out a deal in everyone’s best interests; but something greater – the notion that this government has ever held Northern Ireland’s interests, security and future on par with its own on mainland Britain.
Behind the gambit, and the puffed-up chests of the government, is something that has long been understood in Stormont and Government Buildings, but conveniently ignored by their counterparts in Westminster: Northern Ireland’s central function to Johnson’s administration is as a bargaining chip for the benefit of a puritanical Brexit.