Fintan O’Toole: There is a pretence the British union is to be saved at all costs

The British PM declared himself minister for the union – a sure sign it’s in trouble

Britain is not proposing border posts along the frontier between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit, but there will have to be checks somewhere, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said. Video: Reuters/BBC

Last month, Boris Johnson, anticipating an imminent general election, sprayed a golden shower of money all over the various departments of the British state. I have an unhealthy interest in one novel arm of that state: the new ministry for the union. In July, Johnson, not content with rising to the office of prime minister, gave himself a title none of his predecessors had ever held, or indeed heard of: minister for the union. I got to wondering what kind of budget this grand new institution might have. Since Johnson insists that “the union comes first” in all his thoughts, I imagined it must be very large. Here is the exciting news from the spending package: “£10 million of additional funding to strengthen the links between the four nations of the union as the UK leaves the EU, supporting the work of the prime minister as minister for the union. Of this, £5 million will be allocated to the Territorial Offices.”

I have to confess that I had no idea what the Territorial Offices might be – something to do with Gibraltar or the British Virgin Islands? But no, Territorial Offices is the actual official term for the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Office of the Secretary of State for Wales and the Northern Ireland Office. The term seems wonderfully resonant: Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast being “out in the territories”. But what really interests me is that Johnson’s own budget as minister for the union, to be spent on strengthening the ties that bind together England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, is £5 million. By contrast, £8.3 billion has been committed to planning for a no-deal Brexit. So £10 million to save the union, £8.3 billion to tear it apart. The order of priorities is rather evident.

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