Will Boris Johnson be the last Prime Minister of the UK?
The prime minister sees himself as the greatest unionist that has ever occupied Downing Street, yet it is he who is bringing the Union to the brink
When Boris Johnson became prime minister, he created another role for himself: “Minister for the Union.”
After getting “Brexit done”, he flew to Belfast where he mimicked Tony Blair’s soundbite about feeling “the hand of history upon our shoulders” prior to signing the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ending 30 years of bloodshed.
“Never mind the hand of history on my shoulder,” quipped a jaunty Johnson, Brexit would “see the hand of the future beckoning us all forward”.
The joke amongst Belfast republicans is that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson will earn his place in history alright – it just won’t be the one he has in mind.
To them, the Minister for the Union has delivered in just fifteen months, what the IRA failed to deliver with four violent campaigns over a century: a decisive push towards breaking the Union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and reuniting Northern Ireland with the south. “We might even build a statute to Boris at Stormont,” one ex IRA man chuckled. Significantly, Sinn Féin was the party least opposed to Johnson’s Brexit deal.
By choosing a hard Brexit Johnson has taken a gamble on the union
“Brexit means Brexit!” chanted Theresa May, but what Brexit actually means is borders – one that the leader of the Conservative and Unionist party has stuck right down the middle of the union in the Irish sea, twelve months after solemnly promising unionists to their face that this was something no “British Conservative prime minister could or should sign up to” because it would be “damaging to the fabric of the Union with regulatory checks and even customs controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
If the optimistic noises coming out of London, Dublin and Brussels about a Free Trade Agreement come good, customs tariffs will be avoided (though not the paperwork). Nonetheless, in 39 days’ time, there will be a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK because the former will stay in the EU single market for goods, whilst the latter will leave.
So whatever kind of FTA is struck, businesses are set to become more economically distant from the rest of the UK. Food will likely cost more than any other part of Johnson’s “awesome foursome” even though Northern Ireland can least afford it. So heavily indebted are Northern Ireland consumers, they have half the discretionary income of their fellow British citizens. Delays and product scarcity from GB are also likely.
“Let me be very very clear about this,” said Aodan Connolly Director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, “no matter what sort of Brexit we have between now and 1 January, no matter what falls into place, there are going to be cost rises. There is no good regulatory fairy who’s going to come down and sort this out. What we’re trying to do is mitigate it as much as possible”
The only question is by how much will the cost of living rise, and to what extent might there be product delays and even shortages? An EU-UK Joint Committee is trying to iron out differences over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol which revised the regulatory and customs arrangements agreed by Theresa May in her softer backstop deal. But while an overall deal on free trade may encourage some EU flexibility over the Protocol, one thing is for sure: by choosing a hard Brexit Johnson has taken a gamble on the union.
From New Year’s Day, goods ferried over from the British mainland will be treated as if they are “imports” from a foreign country. “That’s not compatible with unionism” said the chairman of the Ulster Unionist party Lord Empey. Unionists refer to Johnson’s “Withdrawal Act” as the “Betrayal Act.”
Last year half a million freight trucks brought goods across the Irish sea to Belfast with minimal paperwork. Every week, food products alone account for hundreds of trucks supplying some 130 stores for Sainsbury’s, Asda, Tesco, Iceland and M&S.
Unless the EU allows the UK special derogation from its single market rules that it hasn’t granted any other third country bordering its 26 member states, every food item arriving from mainland Britain that contains an animal or plant product will need to be accompanied by an “Export Health Certificate” (EHC) – signed off by a specially trained vet, each certificate costing a minimum of £55. These checks will be required right down to the ham and cheese in your Belfast Tesco pizza to ensure both have been produced by farms aligned to EU regulations. Aodhan Connelly says this would add “tens of thousands of pounds” to each Belfast bound supermarket trailer with the cost inevitably passed to the consumer.
So much for Johnson’s early prime ministerial protestations to the European Council that “seeing Northern Ireland gradually detached from the UK economy” would be “unacceptable to the British government.” Two months later, the need to win a clear majority in Parliament to “Get Brexit Done” made that unacceptable risk, acceptable.
So much, too, for the Brexit “bulldog.” From 1 January, that “bulldog” may be more at the mercy of the EU than the other way around. The National Audit Office says there is a “very high risk” that Northern Ireland won’t have an inspection regime in place by then, so the “bulldog” may have to beg for the EU’s indulgence to avoid cripplingly long inspection queues at Larne and Belfast.
Voters who don’t self-identify as unionist or nationalist make up the fastest growing political constituency
The government says it is pursuing a “flexible” approach to the Revised Protocol through its “ongoing (Joint Committee) discussions … about the process by which controls are conducted, and their frequency.” But as we go to press, traders remain in the dark about the extent of both regulatory controls and their frequency. A recklessness in the government’s approach to the transition deadline pervades the atmosphere. Take farming, one of Northern Ireland’s largest sectors: farmers have just discovered how differently they’re going to be treated from their mainland colleagues. Special paperwork will be required for importing farm machinery from Britain, to say nothing of agricultural products.
Already the uncertainty of cost and delays about to be triggered by the new regulatory regime are posing a threat to food supplies with “producers now planning for the worst-case scenario” says Dominic Gould, head of international trade at the Food and Drink Federation. “Many are planning to stop supplying the Northern Ireland market after 1 January.”
The insecurity and anxiety caused by Johnson’s hard Brexit has produced a rare moment of unity between the DUP First Minister Arlene Foster and the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill who otherwise can barely agree on the time of day. They’ve just co-signed a letter to the EU pleading for flexibility: “It is hard to imagine a more fundamental aspect of everyday life than the purchase of daily food supplies.”
Of course, it is in the EU’s interest to show clemency because they want a deal as well, and one suggestion is that there should be a period of grace as Northern Ireland transitions into the single market. But just how much clemency the EU grants will also depend on trust – something that’s in short supply because of Johnson’s threat to override the Revised Protocol with his Internal Market Bill if there’s no agreement on how to put the Protocol into practice.
The fact that a British prime minister so early in his premiership is no longer seen as a man whose signature on a treaty solemnised by international law can be trusted is also remarkable for the fact that it’s not really news anymore.
His claim that in the event of a No Deal, the IMB is needed to protect the Good Friday Agreement by ensuring the Irish border remains free from checkpoints (i.e. soft) also takes the Chutzpah biscuit. The bill’s key clause – abolishing EU approval for UK state subsidies for NI businesses trading with the EU – has got nothing to do with customs or regulatory checks.
If anything poses a risk to the softness of the Irish border, it is the IMB because it abolishes Exit Summary Declarations which the Protocol requires for goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. Johnson echoes those early Brexit baiters daring the EU to blink first by hardening the Irish border with check points. He warns about the risk to Northern Ireland’s peace and stability from those prepared to “actively undermine the union” when it is he more than anyone who’s doing the undermining.
If Norther Ireland businesses dependent on mainland Britain for supplies – especially the high-volume low-cost retail end – want to keep turning in a profit, one obvious solution is to turn to their EU partners across the tariff free border in the Irish Republic.
When it comes to nationalist sensibilities, the prime minister seems as tone deaf as he is to unionists
Voters who don’t self-identify as unionist or nationalist make up the fastest growing political constituency in Northern Ireland today, now as high as 50 per cent. If Belfast becomes “gradually detached” economically from London, it’s easy to see why the non-aligned may eventually discover they have more in common with Dublin. A Brexit generated magnet might also tug at the underbelly of softer unionists who voted with nationalists to make up the clear majority in Northern Ireland who voted remain. An added attraction is that the South today is more socially liberal than the North.
To reunite North and South, the Good Friday Agreement requires a majority in favour (only 50 per cent plus 1) on both sides of the border. The GFA obliges the Northern Ireland Secretary to put that to the test with a border poll if “at any time it appears likely to him” there’s a majority for reunification. A poll would be held concurrently in the South.
Whilst by no means conclusive, recent opinion polls indicate the trend is towards reunification and Sinn Fein see a faster growing Catholic-nationalist population as reinforcing it.
No longer are unionists in a majority at Westminster, nor in the devolved assembly at Stormont. Two years ago, the former unionist First Minister Peter Robinson warned: “The Battle for the Union is on.” He followed this up last month by telling Unionists who think a border poll will never happen that they are “border poll deniers.” The result, he said, would be decided, not by traditional unionists but by Northern Ireland’s expanding political centre ground: “those who do not vote for a party with unionist in its title and those who do not normally vote at all.”
When it comes to nationalist sensibilities, the prime minister seems as tone deaf as he is to unionists. In his determination to get “Brexit done”, he was initially dismissive about the dangers posed by hardening the Irish border, despite warnings that the symbolism of adding even a single customs post would attract violent dissident republicans like moths to a flame.
At a private dinner of Thatcherite MPs in 2018, Johnson – then Foreign Secretary – was recorded as saying it was “beyond belief” the border had become “the tail to wag the dog” in the Brexit negotiations “We’re allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly.”
Perhaps, suggested Johnson, the UK should copy the Donald Trump way of doing business: “I am increasingly admiring of Donald Trump” having “become more and more convinced that there is method in his madness … Imagine Trump doing Brexit. He’d go in bloody hard… There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually, you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”
Actually, it was a very, very bad idea, and it seems that as prime minister, Johnson was put right by officials who, unlike him, had experience of the Irish border. Nonetheless, the episode reflects the ignorance of some Brexiteers. The British press gets a full airing in both parts of Ireland and some of the claims for Brexit have, as one celebrated columnist put it, been of the “village idiot” variety.
Prize among these “idiots” were Conservative MP Nadine Dorries who admitted she didn’t know what a Customs Union is – even though she voted for Brexit. Also, her Brexiteer comrade MP Andrew Bridgen who told BBC Radio Ulster: “As an English person, I do have the right to go over to Ireland and I believe that I can ask for a passport.” No, Andrew, you can’t – not unless you’re Irish.
It was this level of ignorance born of indifference to the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland that helps explain the last election’s big shift towards centrist parties like Alliance, now the third largest with 17 per cent of the vote: the growing centre ground that Robinson fears may tip a border poll in favour of reunification. Since its common feature is pro-remain, how Brexit works out may be the decider.
No. 10’s tone deafness to nationalists is also apparent in its approach to the intractable issue of legacy: how to deal with some 1000 unresolved killings from the 30-year conflict which cost almost 4000 lives.
Nadine Dorries admitted she didn’t know what a Customs Union is – even though she voted for Brexit
22 years on from the Good Friday peace agreement, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. If anything, arguments about “The Past” have grown more visceral. For years, unresolved killings have been the subject of a hotch-potch of investigations by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the Police Ombudsman, outside police inquiries, inquests, a few public inquiries and a rapidly escalating number of civil cases – overwhelmingly directed at discovery of state documents about the role of the security forces in contested shootings. The number of civil cases now stands at around 1000 and 42 separate judicial reviews. The former Northern Ireland DPP Barra McGrory QC has warned that if the growth of “Lawfare” continues, the civil courts risk being paralysed.
The intractability of legacy has been perhaps the biggest single disrupter of Northern Ireland developing a shared future. Practically every collapse of the devolved power-sharing government has related in some way or another to mutual mistrust over legacy. Just about the only thing that both sides do agree on is that the needs of relatives who lost loved ones – officially termed the “victims” – should come first. Some victims want prosecutions; others just want to know the details of what happened.
The closest the political parties have come to agreeing a mechanism for dealing with unresolved killings whilst also trying to foster reconciliation is a complex network of criminal and non-criminal units hammered out in what’s called the Stormont House Agreement (SHA).
The criminal route would see an Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) with police powers continuing to investigate unsolved killings and referring reports to the Northern Ireland DPP; where no prosecutions were possible, the non-criminal route would kick in with a written HIU report for victims. There would also be “information recovery” by an “Independent Commission for Information Retrieval” (ICIR) open to victims who want to find out what happened to their loved ones. Information would be sought from paramilitaries, government and the security forces through trusted interlocutors; “truth and reconciliation” would be fostered by an Oral History Archive (OHA) compiled from public record material and those who want to tell their stories; reconciliation initiatives would be promoted through the creation of an Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG).
It is an article of faith in Northern Ireland that any legacy initiative requires the widest possible cross community and political consensus, otherwise it is doomed. Buy-in from the Irish government is also key because they are joint signatories to the Good Friday Agreement and were instrumental to delivering it. So, in 2018 the Theresa May government put the SHA proposals out to public consultation. The result, published in July 2019 found a “majority” in “broad support” for the SHA’s “institutional framework.” In Northern Ireland that’s about as good as it gets and in January 2020, the then Secretary of State Julian Smith said that within 100 days the government would “publish and introduce legislation” to implement the SHA.
No. 10 soon put a stop to that. As a Remainer who’d clashed with the prime minister in cabinet over his threat to exit Brexit without a withdrawal agreement, Smith’s face didn’t fit and in February Johnson sacked him.
No matter that Smith was highly regarded by the UK’s closest partner on all matters Irish, Smith was also hailed by the outgoing Taoiseach, Leo Varadker as “one of Britain’s finest politicians of our time.” Not only had Smith (together with Irish foreign Minister Simon Covney) restored the power-sharing Executive after a three-year hiatus; he also pushed through same sex marriage legislation.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Smith had also invested heavily in getting to know as many people as he could on all sides and winning their trust. He seemed set to make a difference in a way that no previous Northern Ireland Secretary had since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. The DUP leader Arlene Foster paid tribute to his “incredible dedication”; the SDLP leader Column Eastwood described his sacking as a “strategic error”; even Sinn Fein referred respectfully to their “intensive contact” with him.
Of the 301 people killed by soldiers most are classed as civilians, presumably unarmed
Five weeks after Smith’s sacking, his replacement, Brandon Lewis, presented to parliament what amounted to a two-page decree announcing that the SHA would be replaced by a “new approach” to legacy – one that would “put victims first”, despite this change having been decided without consulting the victims it claimed to serve. Nor had any of the signatories to the SHA been consulted – neither Northern Ireland’s four main political parties nor the Irish government. “Dangerously deluded” was the response from WAVE (Widows Against Violence Empower), the largest cross community victims’ group. “Unilateral and unhelpful,” say MPs on the all-party Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC).
It turns out that the “victims” stuff was window dressing for what most mattered to the Conservative party: putting army veterans first before other victims – i.e. the victims of the many disputed army shootings as well as those murdered by republican and loyalist terrorists. The party’s military wing had convinced Johnson that prosecutions for Northern Ireland veterans are somehow “vexatious.”
The timing of Lewis’s decree was dictated by the Conservative party’s imperative to deliver its manifesto pledge to prevent prosecutions including for “torture and war crimes” of British soldiers who serve overseas. Ministers had promised Northern Ireland veterans “equal treatment” so Lewis’s decree was issued alongside the Overseas Bill. “Hundreds of Northern Ireland vets set to get legal guarantee they won’t face any more court witch-hunts,” tweeted the armed forces minister Johnnie Mercer.
Why not put army veterans first, you might ask? They were on the streets lawfully armed whereas terrorists were not. But there is another uncomfortable truth about the conflict rarely discussed this side of the Irish sea: disciplined though the British army is, putting soldiers on the streets in the middle of a violent insurgency inevitably ends in civilian deaths, and the sober truth is that of the 301 people killed by soldiers most are classed as civilians, presumably unarmed.
The government’s manifesto promise to legislate against “vexatious legal claims that undermine our Armed Forces” was given without ministers ever having defined the term “vexatious.” It implies that the Northern Ireland DPP has been motivated by a desire to harass veterans rather than by evidence. This is Trump-like nonsense, a consequence of veterans lobbying Conservative backbenchers, some of whom “know next to nothing about Northern Ireland,” as one senior detective who has investigated army shootings told me.
Even the MoD has emphasised the independence of the Northern Ireland DPP. So, which “vexatious” prosecutions is the prime minister referring to? The six former soldiers currently facing trial over the deaths of six people in relation to five shooting incidents, including the alleged murder of a 15-year-old boy? If so, what Johnson doesn’t mention is that most of those shootings were in 1972 when a little-known Royal Ulster Constabulary force order was in place.
The army GOC and the Chief Constable had privately agreed that interviews of soldiers involved in shootings would be conducted, not by the CID, but by the Royal Military Police. Many RMP interviews were a “managerial” formality, rather than an investigation, with statements running to just a few lines. This cosy arrangement only ended at the insistence of the Northern Ireland DPP in late 1973. The Lord Chief Justice also “deprecate[d]” the practice and said he hoped it wouldn’t be revived.
It wasn’t – but neither was there a review of the decision not to prosecute soldiers responsible for army killings between 1970-73 when most of the 301 people shot by the regular army died.
Under Article 2 of the ECHR, Britain is required to conduct “effective, independent and transparent” investigations into killings by “state actors” – which means more than just a quick rummage by the PSNI through the CID boxes containing statements from the RMP. Article 2 requires the police to thoroughly review these inadequately investigated killings; the police in turn are required to bring any new evidence to the attention of the Northern Ireland DPP.
Nor is there any evidence of a bias in favour of prosecuting army veterans. Since 2011, the DPP has brought 21 prosecutions against alleged republican and loyalist terrorists, both armed groups being responsible for 90 per cent of deaths.
Lewis also said, “only cases in which there is a realistic prospect of a prosecution, as a result of new compelling evidence” will now proceed to “a full police investigation and if necessary, prosecution.” Otherwise further investigation will be banned.
His decree also suggests that final examinations of unresolved killings need to be “swift.” But Jon Boutcher, former chief constable of Bedfordshire, asks whether this will amount to “swiftness at the expense of comprehensiveness.”
Boutcher currently heads Operation Kenova, a £35m criminal investigation into the murder of Irish men and women the IRA executed as suspected British spies, and the intelligence services who ran them. Central to this was the role of a prized British agent, codenamed Stakeknife. As a spy embedded in the IRA’s own internal security unit known as the “Nutting Squad”, one of Stakeknife’s tasks was to alert his handlers to fellow British agents/informers at risk of discovery. In fact, some 30 men and women accused by the IRA of spying were murdered while Stakeknife was in place. He even interrogated some of them before they were shot. It rather looks as if some were sacrificed because Stakeknife’s spymasters regarded him as being more valuable.
Lewis’s reference to swiftness “causes concern,” Boutcher told MPs. What happens, he asked, if someone were to come forward with “new and compelling” evidence after a case has been closed? To be statutorily barred from opening a murder case “would be a unique position in UK law” he says, and MPs on NIAC agree. Permanently closing criminal cases “raises profound legal, ethical and human rights issues,” they say.
Who will decide what constitutes a “comprehensive” examination of a state killing which meets the government’s Article 2 obligations? In the Stakeknife case, Boutcher appears to have discovered a wealth of intelligence never shared with any previous outside investigation into Northern Ireland’s undercover war.
In one respect, however, the change from Stormont House is surely wise. The government will switch the emphasis on prosecutions to “providing as much information as possible to families about what happened to their loved ones.” Prosecution prospects recede with every year that passes as witnesses grow old and die. In practice, though, how free will be the government with such information within the custody and control of the intelligence services – and which could provide victims with a much fuller picture?
The omens aren’t encouraging. In September, Boutcher told MPs he’d had “something of battleships with some of the organisations” about retrieving files on Stakeknife. The “organisation” in question is MI5 and, I am told, Boutcher’s comment is an understatement. On one estimate, the Stakeknife investigation – now into its fifth year –might have concluded two years ago had MI5 given him their full co-operation from the start.
On multiple levels, the devil in the government’s “new approach” to legacy is in the detail – and the detail is completely lacking, something the NIAC finds “deeply concerning.” The government has failed to provide any written or oral evidence to the NIAC. Neither the PSNI nor Boutcher were consulted over the proposals.
Irish officials seasoned in working closely with Britain to keep the Northern Ireland show on the road, tell me that, since Johnson became prime minister, they have detected an “uncharacteristic carelessness” in policy making. The tone is set from the top for the looming crisis over legacy is all of a piece with No. 10’s cavalier approach to Brexit and its gamble with the union. By putting a border down the Irish sea, Johnson has imposed the “most significant change since Partition”, says Lord Empey in reference to the 1920 Government of Ireland Act that separated Ireland the following year into a successful state in the South and a new one in the North, often referred to as a “failed state” because, even to this day, it has since failed to carve out a shared future.
Next May the Union of Northern Ireland and Great Britain celebrates its centenary. In his dual role as Minister for the Union and prime minister, Boris Johnson will host a typically boosterish event with unionists to commemorate the creation of “our wee country.” With nationalists likely to boycott the celebration, it may feel more like a wake, a reminder that the polls spurred on by Brexit, Legacy and demography are now heading in one direction – south, towards reunification and away from the gerrymandered basis on which Northern Ireland was born.
Next May too, Scottish nationalists can expect a thumping mandate in the Holyrood elections for a second independence referendum. Johnson insists the 2014 “No Vote” settled the matter. But Scotland was told it should vote No because the 2014 referendum was also a decision over its place in Europe. Johnson has now taken Scotland out of Europe, so it is he who has done the unsettling. If he continues to block a referendum, all he’ll succeed in doing is fuel the growth of Scottish nationalism.
The prime minister sees himself as the greatest unionist that has ever occupied Downing Street. Yet, more than anyone else, it is he who is bringing the Union to the brink.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe