This was first posted on Facebook on 3rd February 2021, with support from my Ko-Fi network.
The most complicating factor in figuring out what might happen in Northern Ireland over the next few weeks or months, is that Boris Johnson is a chronic liar, and yet neither mainstream media nor his ministers nor his MPs seem able to say so.
We can note what Boris Johnson says. But we know, from past experience, that what he says doesn’t correspond to what he’ll actually do: and what Johnson wants to do, essentially, is anything that’ll make him popular.
He literally seems to have been making decisions on coronavirus based on what focus groups and polling tell him will be popular. For example “Kids back to school!” polls well until the kids actually DO go back to school and it dawns on all the parents that the kids will be bringing back a delightful mix of viruses and germs from other households. Whereupon what becomes popular is closing all the schools. And then sending the kids back to school becomes popular again!
Today is Wednesday. Prime Minister’s Questions day.
On Friday, in a fight over vaccine supply, an EU official threatened to invoke Article 16 of the NI Protocol to stop goods getting in to Northern Ireland from the Republic/vice versa (to prevent NI from ordering vaccine supplies from the EU, in effect). Article 16 was not actually invoked, but it was a scarily silly thing to do, and was very properly withdrawn within a few hours.
Trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is slumping, as many firms discovered on 30th December 2020 that from 1st January onwards what had been an utterly simple business of shipping from one part of the UK to another, now involved a great deal of paperwork. Michael Gove has variously described this as “road bumps” and “teething trouble“.
British politics goes on.
On Monday, in an Opposition Day debate, MPs voted by 263 votes to zero to bring in new measures to resolve the problem of dangerous cladding that made a pyre of Grenfell Tower on 14th June 2017, including an independent taskforce to get the cladding removed from all high-rise blocks.
On Tuesday, a report from a focus group was leaked to the Guardian about plans by Labour to improve Keir Starmer’s image and policy plans for Labour to focus on “patriotism and the flag” in winning back the “red wall” seats. The leak yesterday – presumably – happened because of Labour’s victory in the Commons on Monday, so that the media would be discussing Starmer’s failure to “lead” rather than the Tory failure on cladding. (#2021LabourLeadershipElection is trending on Twitter: it worked.) Tory backbenchers were reported to be extremely angry at Boris Johnson‘s whipping them to abstain – though naturally none of the spineless wretches actually disobeyed, again by report, many of them would actually have liked to be seen supporting a homeowners trapped in dangerous, uninsurable, unsellable flats.
Also on Tuesday: customs inspectors in Northern Ireland had to be removed from the port and inspections suspended after threats of violence against them – “sinister graffiti” and nasty text messages. These threats appear to have been made by unionist paramilitary types, though I do not believe any named group has identified themselves as responsible.
Also on Tuesday: the DUP announced their 5-point plan against the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is to say, against the Good Friday Agreement. Their “plan” is:
- United message from unionists
- free us from the Protocol
- oppose all Protocol related measures in the NI Assembly
- build support in Parliament to free us from the Protocol
- launch Parliamentary e-petition “Trigger Article 16 – We want unfettered GB-NI Trade”
- North-South relationships will be impacted
I have no idea, and we may never know, if the DUP leadership told the Conservative party leadership about their decision to publicly oppose the NI Protocol – that is, the Good Friday Agreement – beforehand. (The DUP assert this decision was triggered by the EU invoking Article 16 on Friday, but in my personal and highly biased opinion, they were just waiting for an excuse.)
I have no idea if anyone in the DUP leadership knew about the plans for “sinister graffiti” and threatening text messages, before the threats were actually carried out. (Arlene Foster professes herself “astounded” that anyone could see a connection between the threats and the DUP plan.) But it was clear from years earlier that Brexit, however ameliorated, would screw up the Good Friday Agreement: and it is clear to all, now, that for the extremist unionists, screwing up the Good Friday Agreement is a feature, not a bug.
The EU’s announcement that it would invoke Article 16 was provocative – but to Brexiters/British patriots, so was the fact that Ursula von der Leyen walked it back because the Irish Prime Minister had a word. The UK was not powerless – von der Leyen would in this instance likely also have listened to an appeal from Boris Johnson – but it’s far from clear that Johnson could have brought himself to so appeal.
The DUP want no border down the Irish Sea (in which they likely have considerable business support) and a hard border between the six counties and the Republic (in which they have no support outside the extremist unionists). Unsurprisingly, their “five points” dwell on the removal of the Irish Sea border more than the consequent imposition of the land border.
Today, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, Keir Starmer had not sufficient notice of events in Northern Ireland on Tuesday for any of his questions to the Prime Minister to be about whether he was going to stand by his own treaty or not. Instead, he stuck to questioning Boris Johnson on cladding, and Boris Johnson cheerfully gave a speech about how much the government were going to do to help all those people stuck in dangerous, uninsurable, unsellable flats. When Keir Starmer pointed out that in three and a half years the government had done absolutely nothing to help those people, Boris Johnson launched into what appeared to be a complete diversion – the Speaker, with characteristic gentleness, pulled him up to remind him that the PM’s answers should be related to the question asked.
Boris Johnson’s diversion was about vaccines. About the success the Westminster government were having with the vaccine rollout. About how Keir Starmer had “several times” stood at “that despatch box” and called for the UK to remain in the European Medicines Agency. (The EMA is blamed by Brexiters for the EU countries being less quick to approve the available COVID vaccines than the UK, though in fact the UK hastily used EU emergency regulations at the last possible moment before they ceased to be available when the transition period expired.)
As a matter of interest, Boris Johnson was sort of correct: in two of the January 2017 debates on Theresa May’s Wthdrawal Agreement, Keir Starmer listed several EU agencies, including the EMA, as benefits which the UK should not wish to be without. Boris Johnson said more than twice, but this is because either he or his minion didn’t check the Hansard record properly, only quickly scanned for Parliamentary debates in which Keir Starmer spoke and the EMA was mentioned and found three such. Boris Johnson and other Brexiter Tories voted against Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement back in 2017: May lost, making the point moot – and the EMA moved from its London premises to the new Amsterdam location in March 2019, a direct consequence of Brexit which seemed to surprise the then-Brexit Minister David Davis, whom I recall explaining, as EU nations competed for the two agencies then based in London, that he had not been consulted and therefore nothing had been agreed.
Incidentally, Theresa May was called on at the Prime Minister’s Questions today, and I wondered if she was going to use the moment to point out that the current tense situation in Northern Ireland would not exist if her Withdrawal Agreement had succeeded in January 2017: but instead she asked for government support for her private member’s bill for tougher sentences for deaths caused by careless driving. You might wonder if this is subtext: I couldn’t possibly comment.
Two Northern Ireland MPs spoke at PMQs.
The first, Stephen Farry (Alliance Party MP for North Down) did raise the Northern Ireland protocol, but about how this impacts on vets.(Brexit impacts veterinary practice in all sorts of ways.)
Ian Paisley, son of the more famous Ian Paisley, is the DUP MP for North Antrim. He called on Boris Johnson to “be the unionist we need you to be”. And Boris Johnson responded by harking back to the vaccine issue on Friday, and saying he would consider invoking Article 16 to defend Northern Ireland. Johnson did not mention the threats of yesterday, nor that Michael Gove was due to have a Zoom meeting with Maroš Šefčovič at 5pm today. held a 40-minute video conference, along with Arlene Foster (DUP) and Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin), the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.
Maroš Šefčovič is the Vice President of the EU Commission. Technically, if we consider Ursula von der Leyen and Boris Johnson equals, he’s Michael Gove’s opposite number.
Michael Gove wrote a letter to the EU Commission ahead of time. Gove seems to think these little problems at the ports can be resolved if the EU will extend the grace period and make some changes to relax the Northern Ireland protocol. (The EU Commission notes that access to HMRC servers by the EU to allow them to create a “trusted trader” system for Northern Ireland has not yet been granted by the UK government.)
The EU Commission wants to know how the UK is going to protect the customs inspectors, required to do their work by the NI Protocol that the UK agreed to both in the Withdrawal Agreement and in the December trade deal, from threats – and from actual violence – by the violent and extremist unionists.
It seems only reasonable and sensible for the EU to allow a few easements to the NI Protocol, especially in the first year. It would be very sensible to extend the grace periods, especially while the pandemic is still disrupting everything else.
But anyone who is old enough to remember the Troubles knows perfectly fucking well that no easements offered are going to stop the extremist unionists from continuing to try violent disruption of the Irish Sea border. These are not sensible, reasonable people. These are not people who will be satisfied and go home after a few cosmetic changes are made. These are people who want Northern Ireland to be British, who would like a hard border between north and south, and who do not care who dies in the process.
Irish nationalists in Northern ireland can doubtless also see perfectly well that Brexit leads to a united Ireland like a high road. But they don’t – yet – have to resort to violence to accomplish that. The tougher it becomes to import goods from Great Britain, and the easier it becomes to import via the EU south, the more tempting it becomes to move towards a united Ireland – for all except the extremists who would rather kill to be British.
Gove’s letter, having called for various changes to the NI Protocol, concludes “If it is not possible to agree a way forward in the way we propose, then the UK will consider using all instruments at its disposal. In all cases, what is now required is political, not technical, solutions. A primarily technical approach led to what I know you agree was a grave error on 29 January.” [Ahem.] “Northern Ireland would not be where it is today if the negotiations leading to the 1998 Agreement had been done on a technical and legalistic basis.” [Gove in The Price of Peace, published in 2000, described the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement as a “moral stain,” “humiliation,” “denial of our national integrity” etc.]
By “using all instruments at its disposal” Michael Gove is presumed to mean invoking Article 16, as Boris Johnson threatened to in the Commons today in PMQs.
The EU Commission is said not to like the tone of the letter – which was likely written for Brexiter consumption at home – the Daily Telegraph published it before the 5pm meeting – but the joint statement issued after the meeting is only a bland condemnation of violence and a promise of future meetings as “the UK and the EU would immediately work intensively to find solutions to outstanding issues”.
Would Michael Gove join with Arlene Foster to break the Good Friday Agreement by invoking Article 16 to block trade between north and south in Ireland?
Maybe. True, Gove wrote The Price of Peace – when he was a Times journalist, before he became a MP, and over twenty years ago. Since then, he’s been part of Vote Leave and he wants to be Prime Minister. (And come in third in two leadership contents. But still standing.)
Would Boris Johnson actually invoke Article 16, knowing what trouble he would instigate in Northern Ireland by doing so?
He says he would. In the House of Commons talking to Ian Paisley, and in Gove’s letter, certainly approved by Johnson to go to the Daily Telegraph, and on Twitter, Boris Johnson says he absolutely would.
But as we all know, Boris Johnson’s style as Prime Minister is hearty sabre-rattling at home, no matter what lies he has to tell to carry this off: delay, obfusticate, delay, and lie abroad: and finally do what the EU wants him to do. Boris Johnson, I feel almost certain, will not invoke Article 16 with the consequent effort and expense of re-creating a hard border on the island of Ireland. That’s not at all his style.
But would Michael Gove do it, if it happened he was Prime Minister instead of Boris Johnson?
Well – it would certainly be very convenient for the Conservatives in opposing Scottish independence, if they could point out mournfully that they are currently trying to quell the neo-Troubles in Northern Ireland and the SNP are provocatively insisting on holding a referendum anyway.