Boris Johnson’s ‘vandalism’ of peace gains risks violence in North, warns Powell

UK’s chief negotiator in the Belfast Agreement talks addresses Oireachtas committee

Boris Johnson’s “vandalism” of hard-won peace gains in the North just to cling onto power could “provoke some violence”, the UK’s chief negotiator in the Belfast Agreement talks has warned.

Jonathan Powell said the British prime minister’s threat to “unilaterally abrogate” agreed post-Brexit arrangements amid a deepening row with the EU is driven by “Conservative Party politics and not the best interests of Northern Ireland.”

Its “main casualty” will be the peace process, the former chief of staff to ex-prime minister Tony Blair said.

Mr Johnson was accused of “pandering” to “Brexit radicals” in the European Research Group, a rump of hard right-wing MPs within the Tories, just to “shore up his leadership.”

“(Foreign secretary) Liz Truss, unfortunately, is now in charge of these negotiations and is also pandering to those people in the hope of getting their votes to succeed Boris Johnson,” Mr Powell said.

“What they are doing is going to solve absolutely nothing,” he told the Oireachtas committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

“We are going to end up back up in negotiations at some stage. In the meantime we will have trashed our reputation. We will have created serious political problems in Northern Ireland. We may even have provoked some violence and it is completely pointless, without any political purpose other than survival within the Conservative party.”

Mr Powell also warned of the “enormously destructive” impact on Britain’s relations with Ireland, the EU and the US. “It makes me despair, to be honest,” he said.

By threatening to rip up the Northern Ireland Protocol - part of Brexit divorce deal to avoid a hard border in Ireland - Mr Johnson was manipulating legitimate unionist concerns by attempting “to redefine consent and cross-community consensus” as laid out in the Good Friday Agreement, according to Mr Powell.

“This is quite dangerous, to try to bleed these things into something different to what they meant in the Good Friday Agreement.. it could undermine the whole basis of the Good Friday Agreement.”

The approach was underpinned by a majority of Mr Johnson’s supporters, who when asked in an opinion poll at the time of his last leadership race, said they were “prepared to lose Scotland and Northern Ireland if they get Brexit.”

He added: “If you think of the mindset of the people who brought Boris Johnson to the job of prime minister, for those the future of the union is not that important when compared to Brexit. That is an important political marker to what might happen to the union in future.”

Ireland and the EU must now start preparing for negotiations with a “post-Boris Johnson” Britain, he said.

Britain and the European Union are highly unlikely to break an impasse over the protocol, which puts a defacto border for goods in the Irish Sea to protect the EU single market, while the British prime minister remains in office, Mr Powell predicted.

“I know it sounds rather hopeless to say wait for a new prime minister, but since I’m hoping and believing that is going to happen quite soon, I would be preparing for negotiations post-Boris Johnson,” he said.

If Mr Johnson remains in power, there will be “a real problem” and there is “no magic answer as to what we can do apart from pray, and that is not necessarily a political solution.”

While he did not foresee a risk of “going back to the Troubles” he worried about “a permanent political crisis, where we can’t get institutions up and running again and Northern Ireland will be left without a viable government for the foreseeable future.”

Mr Powell said the current British government was spending its time “destroying trust” which was necessary for negotiations. It was “hard to imagine” how trust could be rebuilt with the current prime minister in office. “I fear we will have to wait until he is departed until we have serious negotiations.”

The “happy compromise” of the Belfast Agreement - which, he said, was a deal that allowed unionists and nationalists to “agree to disagree” - has been “upended by the impact of Brexit,” Mr Powell told the committee.

It was pointed out during the Brexit debate that the UK pulling out of the EU would necessitate there having to be “a border somewhere” to deal with a frontier on the island of Ireland, he added.

“Brexiteers pretended there was some magical answer, technology or something. If that was the case we wouldn’t have borders anywhere in the world.”

While former prime minister Theresa May “struggled honourably to find a way to avoid” a border, Mr Johnson “opted to put the border in the Irish Sea, something his predecessor said no British prime minister could agree to,” Mr Powell said.

Nonetheless, the Irish Sea border is a “massively better option” than a border on the island of Ireland which would be “disastrous for the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process.”

It was important to recognise the issues raised for unionists and their identity, but “unfortunately for unionists there are only two choices.”

“No one in six years has found an alternative and therefore have to work with the Protocol and with the border in the Irish Sea,” he said.

Legislation that would allow ministers overrule the protocol has “broken international law, undermined the UK’s international reputation, alienated allies in North America and Europe at a moment when we need them most and will potentially trigger a trade war when the world is struggling economically with a cost of living crisis.”

But a solution to the current impasse is “perfectly obvious” - the British government should be working to “de-dramatise the situation and rebuild trust with the European Union” while “finding solutions to the undoubted practical problems that exist as a result of the Protocol.”

The EU, too, needs to be “reasonable and flexible, which I think they have been, but more flexible in [the Protocol’s] implementation.”

Unionists were more concerned about the “Sainsburys test” - whether goods destined to stay in the North can travel freely from Britain - rather than “ideological demands” over the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as arbiter disputes in the North, he added.