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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Brexit and Belfast - The consequences of Boris Johnson's carelessness

One of the consequences of the sad death of Prince Phillip on Friday is that it pushed the increasing unrest in Northern Ireland off the main news channels. This is unfortunate, because not only does the world and the UK Government in particular, need to be focussing on finding a solution to the problems faced there, but the appalling consequences of an unsustainable and unthinking Brexit agreement needs to be highlighted at every opportunity.

In yesterday's Guardian, Jonathan Freedland nails the problem. He makes it clear that the origins of the current violence are many and complex but his conclusion is damning about Boris Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers in the government:

This is the ineluctable logic of Brexit. Once Britain chose to be outside the single market and customs union while the Irish republic remained inside, there would always have to be a border. The only question was where. One option was a land border on the island of Ireland, once again separating north and south – which would appal nationalists. The other was a frontier in the Irish Sea, appalling unionists. Boris Johnson swore blind that he would never agree to any such thing, only to do exactly that – devising, negotiating, signing and passing into law the Northern Ireland protocol, which gives that part of the UK a separate status. The result is that loyalists feel that, once again, they have both lost out to the nationalists and been betrayed by London.

Of course, once Johnson had decided to break his own solemn pledge, loyalism and unionism were always going to be disaffected. But he has made things so much worse. Incredibly, the prime minister of the United Kingdom saw fit to do nothing at all until 9.33pm on the sixth day of unrest, when he issued a tweet calling for an end to violence. The former civil servant Tom Fletcher, who once had responsibility for Northern Ireland in Downing Street, tweeted that “there were moments when PM had to rip up grid, cancel break, let people down, stay up late, hit phones, spend, flatter, arm twist and do nothing else for week”. This, wrote Fletcher, was just such a moment. Yet Johnson is doing none of those things. What’s worse, if he did decide to get a grip, who among us thinks he would be capable of it? The patience, the diplomatic nous, the grasp of detail, the ingenuity and empathy required in such a situation – Johnson has none of them.

OK, so maybe he could delegate. Except even the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, wasn’t actually in Northern Ireland until Thursday, Lewis being the latest holder of the post to embody the government’s disregard – some might say contempt – for that part of the UK. Recall his predecessor, Karen Bradley, confessing that she had only just learned that “nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa.” An exception was the diligent Julian Smith, who naturally was sacked for insufficient fealty to Brexit.

The obligation now is to make the protocol work, to minimise the tension it causes, which will demand flexibility from both London and Brussels. But it will always be a sisyphean task, because the protocol is an adjunct of Brexit – and Brexit took a wrecking ball to the delicate mechanism that was so painstakingly assembled 23 years ago. I don’t believe Johnson and his fellow Brexiters actively sought the unravelling of peace in Northern Ireland. In a way, it is worse than that. They were literally careless of the heartbreak and grief that had scarred that place. They did not care.

This is another fine mess Johnson has created.
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