Time for Boris to stop ‘passing the buck’

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

File photo. Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson returns to his official residence at 10 Downing Street after Prime Minister's Questions in London, Britain, 9 December 2020. [Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA/EFE]

Bluster, bluff and a freewheeling approach to facts have been the hallmark of the attitude of Boris Johnson to the problems Brexit posed for Northern Ireland, writes Dick Roche.

Dick Roche is a former Fianna Fáil politician. He was the minister of state for European affairs when Ireland conducted the two referendums on the Treaty of Lisbon of the European Union, in 2008 and 2009.

In 1691 the Treaty of Limerick marked the end of the Williamite War in Ireland. Key provisions in the Treaty were broken “before the ink was dry”.  The Irish have been chary about treaties with their nearest neighbour ever since.

It has taken Boris Johnson rather less time to start shredding the Northern Ireland Protocol and Withdrawal Agreement.

The UK Government’s 3 March confirmation that it intended to unilaterally extend the grace period provisions relating to goods entering Northern Ireland from the UK should not come as a surprise to anybody. The decision is emblematic of London’s approach to the Agreement and its Irish Protocol.

Bluster, bluff and a freewheeling approach to facts have been the hallmark of the Johnson attitude to the problems Brexit posed for Northern Ireland.

As Foreign Secretary Mr Johnson dismissed the complexities posed by the Irish border. Finding a solution, he suggested, is “not beyond the wit of man”. Other than some kite flying about customs clearance zones away from the border and headline-grabbing chatter about potential “abundant technical fixes” no solutions were produced.

When Mr Johnson replaced Theresa May in July 2019 finding a way forward on the Irish border question became critical to avoiding a no-deal UK withdrawal from the EU.

A meeting on 10 October 2019  between Boris Johnson and the then Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar produced a solution.  Boris Johnson, in essence, accepted a shift from checks on a hard land border on the island of Ireland to checks on goods entering Northern Ireland’s ports from the rest of the UK.

This paved the way to an agreement, at the European Council on 17 October 2019 on the UK withdrawal process and on the Irish Protocol.

The arrangements, after some drama in the Commons, gave Mr Johnson a trump card going into the 2019 UK general election.

During the election campaign, Johnson promised Unionists and  businesses leaders in Northern Ireland that “there will not be tariffs or checks on goods coming from GB to NI.” He advised any business required to complete customs forms to throw them in the bin.

In addition to being less than honest with Northern Ireland Unionists, this did little to encourage industry to gear up for the arrangements that Johnson had agreed.  No business is going to invest time, effort and hard cash in preparing for Brexit problems when the Prime Minister says there will be no problems.

Since the election, rather than support the Protocol and work through the difficulties it posed for Northern Ireland Unionists, Mr Johnson has systematically attempted to distance himself from the inevitable problems that have arisen.

Last Autumn as negotiations on the UK withdrawal arrangements were at a crucial point  Downing Street made an extraordinary decision to incorporate provisions that would allow UK  Ministers the right to “unilaterally re-interpret and disapply parts of the (Northern Ireland) Protocol” in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill.

Following protests from the EU Commission, the UK Government dropped the offending provisions saying it had reached an “agreement in principle” on the issues affecting Northern Ireland with the EU.

On Christmas Eve, after months of tortuous talks, the UK withdrawal arrangements were signed off by Boris Johnson. Mr Johnson hailed the agreement as “the foundation for a really prosperous new relationship”.

Within three weeks, well before the Commission’s Article 16 gaffe, Mr Johnson, responding to a question from a DUP MP, told the Commons he would have “no hesitation” in triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to resolve problems with imports from the UK into Northern Ireland.

The 3 March announcement that the UK intended to unilaterally extend the grace period for food imports from Great Britain to Northern Ireland is a direct follow on from that exchange. It has infuriated Brussels and Dublin.

Commission Vice-President Šefčovič labelled the UK action a violation of the Irish Protocol and of the UK’s good faith obligation. The Irish Foreign Minister labelled London’s actions as a breach of trust.

London’s response was dismissive. Cabinet Office Minister Lord Frost, who had just replaced Michael Gove as the UK’s Brexit  ‘point man’, portrayed the UK’s move as lawful and necessary suggesting Brussels should  “shake off any remaining ill will” towards the UK for leaving the EU.

The behaviour of the UK Government over the last year and a half has eroded trust. There is little if any goodwill in Brussels for Lord Frost or for Boris Johnson. There is a weariness in other EU capitals to the never-ending Brexit bickering.

In Northern Ireland itself, attitudes are as polarised as ever and community tensions are being fed by the UK government’s duplicitous approach. None of this makes the makes for optimism.

The 15 March announcement by the Commission that it is triggering infringement procedures and the Withdrawal Agreement’s arbitration mechanism should be sufficient to bring any sensible government back from the brink.

A friendly third party intervention might also help.  The US could be that friendly third party.

Last September, when the news broke that the UK proposing giving its Ministers power to “unilaterally re-interpret” the Northern Ireland Protocol then warnings came both sides of the US political divide.

Then presidential candidate Joe Biden said that the Good Friday peace agreement “cannot become a casualty of Brexit”, Nancy Pelosi warned that the UK was risking its US trade deal and President Trump’s Northern Ireland Envoy cautioned the UK against creating a “hard border (in Ireland) by accident”.

During US Senate confirmation hearings last month President Biden’s nominee for trade envoy Katherine Tai flagged that she would need time to review the discussions on a US-UK trade deal held under the Trump administration in light of the new arrangements entered into between the UK and the EU.

On 4 March White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki when questioned about the UK’s 3 March decision reiterated President Biden’s “unequivocal support for the Good Friday Agreement.

On 10 March the Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney arranged a virtual briefing with the influential Friends of Ireland caucus in the US Congress. Commission VP Šefčovič took part in the briefing.

The UK’s 3 March decision was the main item discussed. Following the briefing, it was announced that a bipartisan motion supporting the Good Friday Agreement will be introduced in the US Senate in advance of St Patrick’s Day.

As noted in EURACTIV previously, on the day following his election as Conservative Leader and before becoming British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was clear as to where responsibility for Brexit lies: “I will take personal responsibility for the change I want to see…. The buck stops here.”

Given the significance that Mr Johnson attaches to a new UK-US trade deal maybe the attention from Washington will persuade him that a confrontational approach is not the way forward and that its time to stop ‘passing the buck’ for the problems that have arisen from the way that he has chosen to ‘get Brexit done’.

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