Boris Johnson’s legacy on Brexit and Belfast

Shaky Brexit agreement seems to be widening deep divisions in Northern Ireland

Published : 10 Feb 2022 08:01 PM

You might be forgiven for thinking that the only thing that happened in the United Kingdom these past weeks had to do with parties in Downing Street of the trials and tribulations facing the Conservative party. No. Not at all.

Perhaps more important than the unravelling of political support for Prime Minister Johnson is the unravelling of the Brexit agreement that he staked and won so much political capital on — and how that agreement is now fraying the edges.

Cast your mind back a little more than two years ago, to the time when Johnson was feted in the UK as the man who got Brexit done, who single-handedly renegotiated the Withdrawal Agreement between Brussels and London that had proved to be the undoing — with more than a gentle nudge from Boris and his cadre of Brexiteers — of former Prime Minister Theresa May.

For most of the prolonged Brexit negotiations, the main sticking point was how to ensure that the UK’s only land border with the EU — across the hills and fields between Northern Ireland and its neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, to the south, would remain open.

Good Friday Agreement

After more than three decades of sectarian and political violence that killed some 3,600 people and injured another 36,000, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 formally ended the conflict and brought economic benefits to all communities.

But that prosperity and peace was threatened by any measures that would mean the return of a hard border — with security and customs checks — essential as part and parcel of Brexit and its termination of the free movement of goods and people between the UK and EU.

With May given the heave-ho, Boris’ solution was to simply draw the customs border down the Irish Sea separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. England, Scotland and Wales would be outside the customs zone, and any checks could be done on goods and lorries as they entered Northern Ireland on ferries from the island of Great Britain.

In his own rendition of truth, Boris said there would be no negative effect, no more red tape, and everything could carry on as normal. It didn’t.

All parties in Northern Ireland warned of the consequences of this cavalier attitude, with Unions — those who want the province to remain an integral part of the UK — in particular sounding alarm bells. For the nationalist community — those who would like to see the province reunited with the Republic of Ireland to the south in a single political entity, quietly welcomed the move, believing that any measure that weakened the ties between Belfast and London were ultimately beneficial to the cause of reunification.

For months now, shops in Northern Ireland have been running low on stocks, companies in the mainland UK are declining to ship goods across the Irish Sea, while trade figures from Dublin show that cross-border trade is booming since Brexit.

But there are elections due in early May to elect a new Northern Ireland assembly, the regional devolved parliament in Stormont that is mandated to share power between the largest party from both unionist and nationalist communities.

Policy blunders and personal conflicts

The problem is that the Democratic Unionist party — their 10 MPs in the Westminster parliament propped up May, holding one arm behind her back as she tried to arm-wrestle a Brexit deal from Brussels — have misplayed the Brexit card throughout. They are trailing in polls — at 17 per cent — their support base is angered by those Brexit checks, and the party is deeply divided by a series of policy blunders and personal conflicts.

So the only card it had left to play is to try and bring an end to those customs checks.

Last week, the Northern Irish Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots ordered his civil servants to cease any and all checks on products such as meat, dairy, farm products, vegetables — anything to do with food.

There was always going to be a question about the powers of a Northern Irish minister overriding an internationally certified and recognised agreement — even if it boosted his party’s support with its key voters.

Sinn Fein, the nationalist party that shares power in the Stormont administration, was outraged at a measure it said was politically motivated and sheer opportunism — it was — and warned of the collapse of the government.

Poots had been First Minister for all of three weeks in a bitter period of division that followed the resignation of DUP leader Arlene Foster.

The current first minister, Paul Givan resigned the next day — and because of the way the power-sharing arrangement works, that meant that Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill also had to go.

The reality is that all this seems like a political play on the surface, there are very real reasons to fear that the quick and dirty Brexit solution put in place by Johnson in his rush to get it done, puts the stability of the province at risk.

Sinn Fein is leading in the polls and enjoys at least 25 per cent support among Northern Ireland voters. Given the manner in which the DUP abruptly pulled the plug, Sinn Fein stands to gain even more from nationalist supporters.

There’s a very real chance that come those elections in May, it will be the largest party and will select the First Minister — a dramatic sea change for the province and one that will cause political tremors that will be felt all the way to Westminster.

Given Johnson’s less than impressive record on handling all things Northern Irish, there’s a very real chance of old divisions reopening. That’s if, indeed, Boris can hang until then. Or beyond. A lot of people on both sides might be wishing he’s moved on by then.

Mick O'Reilly is Foreign Correspondent at Gulf News. Source: Gulf News