As the October 31 Brexit deadline looms, securing the future of Northern Ireland is a complex matter, requiring serious commitment and diplomatic creativity on the part of leaders in the U.K., the E.U., and the Republic of Ireland. New British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who often appears more carnival barker than serious politician, is ill-suited to the task.
In typical sophomoric fashion, he proclaimed in July that his leadership goals can be summarized by the acronym “DUDE” – deliver Brexit, unite the country, defeat Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and energize the nation. While his Conservative Party may have a reasonable chance of defeating Labour in a likely upcoming general election, what passes for Johnson’s “DUDE” agenda is only appropriate for a leader as reckless as the very idea of Brexit itself.
Sadly, the people of Northern Ireland may pay a high price for the political negligence of Boris Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers.
Britain’s Lacking Unity
The “U” in Johnson’s acronym is his most dubious claim. Unity is nowhere to be found in Britain, and Johnson’s leadership, such as it is, has made matters worse. His own Conservative Party is riven with divisions over Brexit, the question of Northern Ireland, and his own position as PM. The latter was underscored by a series of cabinet resignations when Johnson moved into Number 10 Downing Street.
The nation is no more united than his party, as witnessed by the boos that greeted Johnson on his recent tour of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. And the economic harmony that the island of Ireland has enjoyed in recent decades is now under serious threat, as the U.K. appears poised to leave the E.U. with no serious plan to address the question of the Irish border.
Ireland and Brexit
Ireland has always presented a special series of problems when it comes to the implementation of Brexit. Since the six counties of Northern Ireland are a part of the United Kingdom while the remaining 26 make up the Republic of Ireland, the current free flow of people and goods throughout the whole island would presumably be disturbed by Brexit.
The U.K. leaving the E.U. means it would no longer be a part of the single market and customs union, creating the need for customs checks along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It is widely feared that the return of border infrastructure would lead to the return of sectarian violence and the militarization of customs checks.
As a result, Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, worked with E.U. leaders and the Irish government to prevent the return of a hard border in Ireland, proposing a Brexit workaround that became known as the Irish “backstop.” The backstop, if implemented, would essentially allow the status quo in Ireland to continue, despite Brexit.
The backstop is an imperfect and controversial solution to the nearly impossible problem that Brexit has created. And the idea has angered some conservative Unionists in Northern Ireland, who see it as erecting a new kind of border in the Irish Sea, cutting off Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.
And “hard” Brexiteers despise the backstop, correctly seeing it as a less-than-complete U.K. withdrawal from the European Union. But given the progress toward peace that the open border and the Good Friday Agreement have helped facilitate, the backstop is at least a respectable and thoughtful proposal.
Boris Johnson has announced that the backstop should be thrown out altogether, eliciting frustration in Dublin and Brussels, and injecting a further note of confusion into the morass that the Brexit campaign has created. In his phone call to Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Johnson said that scrapping the backstop is the only way to prevent a no-deal Brexit, while simultaneously maintaining that the U.K. would never erect a hard border, complete with customs checks, on Irish soil.
And after Brexit is completed in a timely way, Johnson claims, the Republic of Ireland and the U.K. can simply hammer out a free-trade agreement, resuming a mutually-beneficial economic relationship.
Brexit Without Backstop
How all of this will work is a mystery, or perhaps a figment of Johnson’s imagination.
First, officials in Dublin and Brussels have made clear that the backstop is crucial to any withdrawal agreement, and they do not appear flexible on this point. And the British parliament has repeatedly rejected previous attempts to pass a deal containing a backstop provision. Thus, a potentially disastrous no-deal Brexit, whereby the U.K. suddenly and without detailed agreements and guidelines drops out of the E.U., appears more likely than ever.
Indeed, with fewer than three months remaining until the Brexit cutoff date, it’s hard to imagine any deal beating the deadline. And Johnson has repeatedly made clear that he plans to take the U.K. out of the E.U. by October 31, with or without a deal.
Jeremy Corbyn wants to cancel the referendum and argue about Brexit for years. I am committed to leading our country forward and getting Britain out of the EU by October 31st #LeaveOct31
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) August 12, 2019
Second, Johnson has given no clear, sensible indication of how he plans to reject the backstop while keeping Ireland free of hard borders. His preferred answer to this question is a vague reference to “technology” bringing “frictionless trade” to post-Brexit Ireland.
In a July 21 column in the Daily Telegraph, Johnson inaptly compared the solution to the Irish border issue to the American effort to land a man on the moon in the 1960s, and called his critics “technological pessimists.” It seems the best Johnson can muster is the kind of “if we can put a man on the moon, you’d think…” reasoning that is more suited to late-night pub talk than serious diplomacy.
And finally, Johnson’s optimistic pronouncement that the U.K. and Ireland could easily arrange a free-trade deal after Brexit on October 31 seems willfully obtuse.
As Leo Varadkar has pointed out, in the increasingly likely event of a no-deal Brexit, October 31 would be a beginning, not an end. At such a point, the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland would be entering a new era, in which a series of difficult economic and political issues (the border, a financial settlement, citizenship rights, etc.) would need to be addressed before a free-trade deal could even be negotiated. Varadkar has appeared every bit the sober, realistic politician throughout this process, in sharp contrast to Johnson, who has provided merely cheap showmanship and sloganeering.
It has been over three years since the Brexit vote, and the U.K. and the E.U. are far from a workable withdrawal deal, with the pressing issue of the Irish border nowhere near a solution. Theresa May’s efforts failed rather miserably, and Boris Johnson appears poised to lead the U.K. off the no-deal cliff, with only a non-existent Irish moon-shot up his sleeve.
It is possible that embracing the possibility of no-deal is a ploy on Johnson’s part; he may be gambling that the prospect is so terrifying to the E.U. and the Republic of Ireland that it will force all parties to the negotiating table for an eleventh-hour deal. But the hard truth is that there is no good way to implement Brexit – it was a poorly thought-out idea from the beginning, out of touch with the realities of the twenty-first century.
The people of the U.K., the Republic of Ireland, and the rest of the European Union deserve better than this. While politically problematic and flawed, the backstop may have been the best chance for minimal Brexit damage to Ireland. And if the British government’s carelessness and Boris Johnson’s rejection of the backstop lead to a hard border in Northern Ireland, the progress of the past two decades will be at serious risk.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.