Pat Leahy: Brexit’s back, and this time it’s snarlier than ever

Boris Johnson trying to exploit North’s peace process for his own political purposes

Boris Johnson says   he might scrap the protocol to preserve the Belfast Agreement; the truth is that nobody in Dublin believes he cares a fig for the agreement. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/PA Wire

Boris Johnson says he might scrap the protocol to preserve the Belfast Agreement; the truth is that nobody in Dublin believes he cares a fig for the agreement. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/PA Wire

 

The claims by the British government that its threats to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol are intended to protect the Belfast Agreement and the peace process are not taken seriously by anyone – not by the Irish Government, not by the European Union or any of its member state governments, not by President Joe Biden or the US Congress, not by the majority in the North who voted for parties that favour either retention or consensual reform of the protocol and not even – one suspects – by the DUP, who has surely been double-crossed enough times by Boris Johnson by now.

The British government has the formidable capacities and counsel of an extensive and expert foreign service at its disposal. It can read the foreign press. And while the effluvia (analysis is too generous a term) of some of the British media and several dim-witted Tory backbenchers on the protocol confirm only the invincible ignorance of much of that tribe about Ireland, Johnson and those around him are not stupid: they know exactly what they are doing, even if they might not be particularly skilful or consistent at doing it.

They are not protecting the peace process in the North and the delicate balance of its power-sharing architecture. They are trying to exploit it for their own political purposes. This conclusion follows many conversations with people on all sides and because it is the only logical explanation for the British behaviour, it is both shameful, and dangerous.

Not for nothing does Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings refer to his former boss in social media posts by using a shopping trolley emoji, careering crazily from one side of the supermarket aisle to the other

Two things should be said at the outset. Firstly, we should always beware of donning the national jersey and seeing things only through the eyes of our own tribe. There is enough national cheerleading masquerading as journalism in the Tory press without mimicking it here. But that cannot preclude a judgment that the British government is behaving extremely badly.

Secondly, there is clearly a problem with the protocol. It’s not as significant as some unionists make it out to be, and their fears about its implications for the constitutional status of Northern Ireland are vastly overdone. As Prof Brendan O’Leary and his colleagues pointed out this week in a blog post for the London School of Economics, Johnson “simply cannot interpret the Assembly elections as indicating that a majority in Northern Ireland is against the protocol. Exactly the contrary is the case.”

But there is a problem with the level of checks on goods, a problem that the EU has acknowledged by offering to try to fix it.

The problems – both practical and political – are eminently fixable with patience, a willingness to compromise and goodwill. The Irish Government and the EU have demonstrated these; they have often been lacking on the British side.

They were certainly lacking in recent weeks when the British government has lurched from briefing that it would legislate to set aside the protocol, to stepping back and mentioning the subject only obliquely in the queen’s speech on Tuesday, to threatening again the next day to set aside the protocol on foot of “legal advice” from its own lawyers.

Not for nothing does Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings refer to his former boss in social media posts by using a shopping trolley emoji, careering crazily from one side of the supermarket aisle to the other.

If this were all just a reprise of the Brexit gamesmanship of 2019, it would be safe enough to take a detached view, secure in the expectation, borne of repeated experience, that the British would march their troops up to the top of the hill, and then march them down again.

But the instrumentalisation of unionist anxieties and the abandonment of the joint approach with the Dublin Government to the North is profoundly dangerous and potentially destructive of the carefully constructed compromises of the power-sharing institutions and the politics that surrounds them.

The British have always shied away from the reality of a trade war with a much bigger opponent. They will probably do so again

It is certainly true that the emerging political landscape of Northern Ireland, now with its third, unaligned bloc in the middle, is unsuited to the Belfast Agreement structures, which presume a two-sided, not a three-sided, politics. But what hope have the two governments adjusting the balance of the Stormont institutions when Dublin doesn’t trust a word that London says?

Johnson says that he might scrap the protocol to preserve the Belfast Agreement; the truth is that nobody in Dublin believes he cares a fig for the agreement. “They [the British] are more concerned with keeping Brexit alive and using it as a wedge issue,” says one person familiar with the thinking in Merrion Street. Government Buildings gossip suggests that Micheál Martin’s telephone call with Johnson on Tuesday was “the single worst call he’s ever had with anyone”.

At the heart of the Irish fear is not just the damage to the North (which is deeply worrying the Taoiseach and his officials), but the prospect of an escalating dispute between the UK and the EU and Ireland having to choose – as it was faced with in 2019 – between putting checks on goods crossing the Irish Border or putting checks on goods going to the rest of the EU.

It never came to that and this is not the most likely outcome this time either. The British have always shied away from the reality of a trade war with a much bigger opponent. They will probably do so again.

But in politics, as in life, many things happen by accident. And either way, vast amounts of time and resources that could usefully have been devoted to other things will be expended on this in the coming months. I am sorry to tell you that Brexit’s back, and this time it’s snarlier than ever.

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