Since the EU referendum came and went in 2016, leaving destruction and woe in its path, Ireland has been a thorn in the Eurosceptic’s side. What to do in order to avoid a hard border between north and south came to dominate negotiations between the UK and the EU during Theresa May’s premiership; one could even convincingly argue that it was the Irish problem that did for her time in office.
Boris came up with a very Borisesque way to deal with the Irish border question once he became prime minister: just sod everyone’s concerns about it for now and put the border down the Irish Sea, essentially ceding Norther Ireland to Ireland, at least in customs terms. That got him a Withdrawal Agreement that his whole party could sign up to – what was left of it at the time, anyhow – and allow him to go into a general election with an “oven ready deal”. It worked. Except now he’s got the small problem of having signed an international treaty that puts a customs border down the Irish Sea. Thus far, the plan for now is again highly Borisesque: just try and pretend he never agreed to this plan of action, at the very least in his dealings with the British public. Brandon Lewis, the chap Boris replaced Julian Smith with as Northern Ireland Secretary, put it beautifully yesterday:
“I think it’s safest not to get too caught up in rumours and stuff in the press over the weekends. We are focusing on our main job. We have always said we want to make sure there is unfettered access between GB and Northern Ireland, we’ve always as a government obviously gone by the rule of law and we will continue to do that.”
You said it, Brandon. That mainstream press, reporting on the actual contents of an international treaty your government signed up to a matter of weeks ago instead of whatever crap comes out of “Number 10 sources”. The question, as always with Boris, is: does this denial of the reality of what is in the Withdrawal Agreement amount to some part of HMG’s “bluff” to the EU in order to “strengthen our hand”, or is the UK seriously going to ignore the contents of an international treaty they signed and then had voted through parliament only a few weeks ago? The latter idea is not as impossible as it seems. If you are going for no deal with the EU and look set to try out a “no trade deals with anyone” model, I guess sticking to your agreements becomes less important. I mean, if you aren’t going to sign anymore agreements with anyone, why not, I guess? I suppose this is what real sovereignty looks like.
As Boris Johnson himself has said on the issue:
“The only circumstances in which you could imagine the need for checks coming from GB to NI, as I’ve explained before, is if those goods were going on into Ireland and we had not secured, which I hope and I’m confident we will, a zero tariff, zero quota agreement with our friends and partners in the EU.” The only way there will be check on goods between GB and NI, in the PM’s own words, is if there isn’t a zero tariff, zero quota agreement between the UK and the EU. Which on current trajectory, there won’t be.
I have the distinct feeling we have not seen the end of the Ireland problem. The government will have to deal with it for real at some point in the near future. Sacking your attorney general does not change the contents of international treaties, unfortunately for Boris.