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Fintan O’Toole: Boris Johnson is running out of people to betray

Ireland’s pact with the British prime minister on the North was a deal with a deceitful cheat

It is the adulterer’s dilemma. If he’s cheating on his wife with you, he will surely cheat on you after you marry him.

In October 2019, Boris Johnson dumped Arlene for Leo.

Less than a year earlier, he thrilled the DUP by telling its annual conference that, if Northern Ireland had to follow EU rules after Brexit, it would "leave Northern Ireland behind as an economic semi-colony of the EU and we would be damaging the fabric of the union with regulatory checks and even customs controls between GB and NI".

And then he met a boy on the Wirral and it was goodbye Arlene, hello semi-colony. This was a genuine triumph for Irish diplomacy: a deal to limit the damage of Brexit by ending the imminent threat of a hard Border.

The problem was that it was a pact with a cheat. It was founded on duplicity. It depended on Johnson discarding the DUP like a used tissue: trust the guy who thrusts and goes.

The shakiness of a marriage built on previous infidelity was obvious at the time. I wrote here of the Wirral deal that “any glee at Johnson’s betrayal of the DUP must be tempered by the realisation that, if and when it suits him, his treachery will be turned on Ireland. It is his nature.”

But it was easy to succumb to the temptation to sink into a warm bath of sheer relief. The catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit had been avoided.

If you’ve ever seen a tragic drama, however, you know that original sins always resurface. Bad seeds have bitter fruit.

The best way to understand any promise made by Johnson has always been to insert the word “not”. Now, there is an even shorter path to truth: add the prefix “un”.

His election-winning slogan Get Brexit Done thus becomes the much more truthful Get Brexit Undone. Though not, alas, in the sense of revisiting and rethinking the extremist version of that project he has put in place.

Time travel

And not, as might appear on the surface, as a fit of conscience on Johnson’s part, a remorseful reversion to those original vows he made to the DUP. Nor, of course, as a serious commitment to what might be good for Northern Ireland.

Brexit Undone is, rather, an attempt at time travel. The point is to party like it’s 2016, to return to that glorious year zero of the English national revolution.

Bliss it was that dawn to be alive. The beauty of Brexit was that it had no positive content. It was a negative proposition and nothingness is infinite. (Albert Einstein said the same thing about stupidity but let's not go there.)

The most hollow 0 of this year zero was Northern Ireland. The Vote Leave staffer Oliver Norgrove later confessed in The Irish Times that the campaign deliberately steered clear of the Border question. "Typifying the British political attitude towards Northern Ireland, so absent was the issue that it could not have been anything other than honest ignorance based on learned exclusion."

But that willed ignorance was indeed bliss. It kept Brexit pure and simple. It sustained it as an idea, a gesture, a one-fingered salute to British greatness.

The Brexiteers have never got over the way, as Johnson bitterly expressed it, the Belfast tail then wagged the London dog. Reality came calling at their door, roaring through the letterbox in a clamorous Ulster accent.

Northern Ireland thus symbolises for the Brexiteers the one thing their project cannot abide: reality itself. The more real Brexit gets, the greater their desire to return to the primal state of 2016, the Eden of consequence-free fantasy from which they were expelled by that damned Irish question.

Reality denied

The bite of reality is beginning to break the skin of denial. The UK government’s own figures show that Brexit will reduce its gross domestic product by £1,250 per person. All the trade deals it has signed with other countries put together will recoup less than 50 pence per person per year of that loss.

There is an honest way to deal with these facts. It is to say that yes, there is a price to be paid for the pursuit of an absolutist ideal of sovereignty. Britain will be poorer but prouder.

But the last person on Earth who could ever admit that choices have consequences and that we must learn to live with ours is Johnson. He can’t say it because he doesn’t believe it. His whole life is dedicated to proving the opposite.

The alternative is to erase from history all that messy period between June 2016 and October 2019 when the high mountain stream of Brexit was polluted by Irish actuality.

The Northern Ireland protocol is intolerable because it represents the actual. If it can be made to disappear, so will all the rest of Brexit’s inescapable verities.

In the long run, though, it is Johnson himself who will be undone by his own deceitfulness. He is running out of people to betray.

The symbol of the Brexit crusade is the double cross of St Boris. But a fantasy based on faithlessness must have a diminishing band of believers. Johnson will eventually have no one left to screw over.