Boris Johnson Goes to China – via Ireland

Boris Johnson Goes to China – via Ireland
Photo by Mathew Browne on Unsplash

Boris Johnson’s ‘final offer’ to the EU for a Brexit deal may be effectively dead on arrival, but even if so, does it make a future united Ireland more likely?

Did anyone notice Boris Johnson’s Nixon-in-China move the other day? In papers filed with the European Union and in an address to his party’s annual conference in Manchester, the UK prime minister proposed severing Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, at least in terms of economic regulations and trade. Northern Ireland, he suggested, would follow EU rules for the next four years while the rest of the UK charted its own regulatory path after Brexit.

The proposal was quickly shot down. Johnson’s plan would involve customs checks on or near the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland. It would also give Northern Ireland’s devolved and dysfunctional assembly the power to decide every four years whether Northern Ireland should align its regulatory environment with the EU or the UK.  Anything that smacks of a hard border is a red line that the EU and the Irish government have repeatedly refused to cross. That the future of the all-Ireland economy could be decided unilaterally by Stormont is equally anathema, and Johnson must surely have known that.

The UK Prime Minister has effectively offered to divide the United Kingdom in two.

But lost in all the outrage at yet another clearly unworkable UK proposal was an astonishing but overlooked fact. The UK Prime Minister has effectively offered to divide the United Kingdom in two. Under his proposal, Northern Ireland would effectively remain in the EU – and aligned with Irish, not UK, law. That sounds like a half-step towards Irish reunification or at least a substantial dilution of the allegedly indissoluble bonds that unionists claim bind Northern Ireland to Britain. That any UK prime minister should make such a suggestion is unusual.  That such a proposal comes from one who is also the head of the Conservative and Unionist Party (for that is its official name) is utterly astonishing.

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What does this offer tell us about the state of UK politics on the eve of Brexit? We already knew that Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers are unashamedly hypocritical. They protest that the Irish backstop is “undemocratic”, even though Northern Ireland voted Remain in the Brexit referendum of 2016, and the only purpose of the backstop is to uphold the Good Friday Agreement, which garnered 90% approval in a referendum in the South and 75% approval in the North. Both traditionally unionist and traditionally nationalist communities in Northern Ireland have rallied behind the backstop.

Brexit has exposed the anti-Irish racism lurking in the heart of the UK political establishment (and, indeed, throughout large swaths of British society)

More importantly, it tells us that Johnson is willing to throw his allies in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) overboard by taking a bigger step towards a united Ireland than any previous UK prime minister has ever countenanced. That Brexit has exposed the anti-Irish racism lurking in the heart of the UK political establishment (and, indeed, throughout large swaths of British society) is by now a commonplace. That this sentiment extends to Northern Irish unionists is a revelation. Though DUP leader Arlene Foster has called Johnson’s offer “a reasonable deal”, she should probably re-think her stance and choose her friends more carefully. After all, a more impatient Irish leader than Taoiseach Leo Varadkar might have called Johnson’s bluff and accepted the offer, provided of course that the hard border Johnson seeks gets put not on the island of Ireland, but in the middle of the Irish Sea, between Ireland and Britain.

Ironically, that solution may eventually find favour in Britain. After all, no one in the 2016 referendum voted for UK-exit; they wanted Brexit. To get Britain out of the EU, might the partial dissolution of the United Kingdom be a price that Brexiteers are willing to pay? In a further irony, might history eventually show that the Little Englanders and British nationalists who promoted Brexit were prime movers in the unification of Ireland? While I won’t bet the farm on that possibility, I can’t exclude it either. In the madness and chaos that is UK-exit, all things are possible, even ones that only a few years ago were utterly unimaginable.

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