The Northern Ireland crisis: Boris Johnson’s latest Brexit bait 

A prime minister looking for escape from the latest political hole he is in has spotted one way out – stoking tensions with the EU at Northern Ireland’s expense

23/07/2020. Scotland, United Kingdom. Boris Johnson visits Scotland. The Prime Minister Boris Johnson with live Crab on Copland Dock Orkney as part of his tour of Orkney and the Highlands. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street
Boris Johnson on a fishing trip during his tour of the United Kingdom, 23 July 2020

The recent election to the Northern Ireland Assembly has precipitated a new political crisis there. The vote confirmed that, for the first time since Northern Ireland’s creation in 1922, there is now near-parity in terms of population between nationalist voters (predominantly Catholic, and aspiring to a united Ireland) and unionist voters (predominantly Protestant, and wedded to the union with Britain). This shift delivered the nationalist Sinn Fein as the largest party in the new assembly. It is now entitled to the office of first minister, with the second-largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), providing the deputy first minister (in practice a co-equal, under the power-sharing arrangements). The DUP has found this too much to swallow, and declared that it will paralyse the devolved institutions unless and until its opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol – a key element of the United Kingdom’s Brexit Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union – is satisfied. 

Political crises have been regular occurrences along the difficult road to peace in Northern Ireland, whether leading up to the crucial Good Friday Agreement of 1998, or since. Previous British governments have sought to play them long, letting caretaker administrations in Northern Ireland take over while tempers cooled, coordinating with other interested and influential actors whether in Dublin, Washington, or Brussels, and engaging in patient negotiations with the interested parties. Yet, this time, Boris Johnson’s government has rushed to raise the stakes, supporting the DUP’s contention that the protocol’s provisions for control of trade across the Irish Sea are intolerable. Johnson has confirmed a “necessity to act” – though the near-term action looks likely to be menacing preparatory steps rather than an immediate breach of the UK’s treaty obligations to the EU. What is going on? 

The protocol might seem an odd casus belli. It is, after all, the cornerstone of the Withdrawal Agreement, negotiated and celebrated by Johnson’s government two and a half years ago, and ratified by the UK parliament. In Northern Ireland, the DUP has lambasted the protocol as economically damaging, and it has certainly increased friction for some trade across the Irish Sea. Yet the emerging weight of evidence is that it has so far benefited the Northern Irish economy – unsurprisingly, given that the essence of the deal is to put Northern Ireland in the privileged position of belonging to both the UK and the EU internal markets. One might also point out that a majority of members of the newly elected assembly are from parties that actually support the protocol. (This is unsurprising, given that Northern Ireland never wanted Brexit in the first place: 56 per cent voted Remain in the 2016 referendum.) 

But such details are beside the point. The only thing that matters for the DUP and its allies is that the protocol entails a trade border down the Irish Sea, and that in their view must weaken the United Kingdom’s union. As the demographics and political realities of Northern Ireland move against them, their consternation must be understood and taken seriously – as must the fact that their mood has not been improved by being serially misled by Johnson, first with his assurances that he would never agree to such a border (“over my dead body”) and then with his refusal to acknowledge the reality of what he had endorsed when he signed the Brexit deal. 

Johnson has a trust problem, which is why he must know that a strategy based on playing the madman and expecting the EU to give him whatever he asks for will never work. This is especially so given that negotiations on easing the implementation of the protocol have so far been one-way traffic, with the UK simply pocketing unacknowledged the concessions the EU have offered. So, again, what is he playing at? The Conservatives have traditionally prided themselves on being the “party of the union” – so has he discovered a belated sympathy for the DUP’s cause? This seems improbable, given that his political successes have largely derived from his remarkable freedom from empathy, shame, or guilt. It is now a commonplace among UK commentators that Johnson’s only political project is keeping himself in power. So how would that be served by inflaming the Northern Ireland situation? 

It is now a commonplace among UK commentators that Johnson’s only political project is keeping himself in power. 

There is an obvious short-term answer. Johnson and his government are beset with problems, as their poor showing in the recent local elections elsewhere in the UK confirmed. Those elections were at least partly influenced by the continuing police investigation into “Partygate” – serial carousing in 10 Downing Street while the rest of the country was in lockdown. Until the Ukraine crisis provided welcome distraction, Johnson was at serious risk of defenestration by his own members of parliament – which makes him, despite his large parliamentary majority, uncomfortably beholden to the hard-right, extreme Brexiteer, wing of his party. His only known agenda, that of “levelling up” the disadvantaged regions of the UK, has gone nowhere over his three years in power – recent Bloomberg analysis has found inequalities widening. And now the UK looks set for the devastating duo of 10 per cent inflation and a recession. Already, the government is under widespread attack for doing nothing to ease the financial distress of the poorest in society – for seeming, indeed, unable to understand that there is any real problem as more than a million British households head for destitution, being unable to afford to eat, and stay warm and clean. 

The solution to such woes is, of course, misdirection – the provision of distraction for the right-wing press and Tory hard-liners to savour, whether privatising Channel 4 (an annoying public service broadcaster), deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, or announcing plans (more accurately, a headline target) to cut the size of the civil service by 20 per cent. So maybe heating up the Northern Ireland crisis is nothing more than a further attempt to generate some Boris-boosting headlines

But, if winning the next election (to be called, at a time of Johnson’s choosing, in the next two years or so) is indeed the project he really cares about, then it would be a mistake to imagine that he would not seek to instrumentalise the Northern Irish problem in the service of that aim. Despite the problems that currently surround him, no one should underestimate either the Conservatives’, or Johnson’s own, campaigning skills. Their war chest is full, including with the donations from Russian oligarchs that they see no need to return. The lop-sided first-past-the-post British electoral system favours them over a divided opposition (and the government’s voter-suppression legislation, as well as moves to muzzle the electoral watchdog, should also help). But none of this may be enough to allow a repeat of the electoral success of 2019 unless the winning theme of that campaign can be reprised – Brexit.  

What is now taking place is a careful process of opening the damper under a splendid new, potentially election-winning, conflict with the EU. It would probably be a waste to raise the full conflagration now – though, if it happens anyway, then expect a ‘defend our sovereignty against vengeful EU’ election to be called at short notice. More probably, the fire will be carefully stoked so that it can be brought to a full blaze at the chosen electoral moment. British and Irish alike deserve better than this: but it is the prime minister we have. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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