By playing the “orange card” in Northern Ireland and backing a single community, Boris Johnson is returning the province to permanent instability.
The success of the peace process depends on British government neutrality between the Catholic/nationalist and Protestant/unionist communities, each of which number about one million people. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 (GFA) successfully institutionalised a complex balance of forces in which little could be done without nationalist and unionist cooperation.
Power was shared not only within Northern Ireland but between outside players like the Irish Republic and the European Union, both of whom had a central role in the new order.
These arrangements will be destroyed by the bill to override the Northern Ireland Protocol which is being brazenly and misleadingly presented by the British Government as saving the GFA. Johnson absurdly calls the changes “trivial” and “not a big deal”, though they put his government on a collision course with the EU, the Irish Government, the Biden administration and the nationalist community in the north.
Ignored in this is the fact that Sinn Féin became the largest single party in the Northern Ireland Assembly in the election on 5 May and 52 out of 90 Assembly members have signed an angry letter to Boris Johnson supporting the Protocol. The signatories say that they “reject in the strongest possible terms your government’s reckless new Protocol legislation, which flies in the face of the expressed wishes of not just most businesses, but most people in Northern Ireland”.
Watching Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis justify the demolition of the Protocol as essential to preserve democracy in Northern Ireland is to see hypocrisy run wild. The aim is supposedly to lure the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) back into a power sharing Assembly, but in practice the new bill will make certain that on crucial matters there will be little power to share.
The bill makes certain that the status of the 300-mile-long Irish land border – one of the most contested frontiers in the world – is once more uncertain. The Partition of Ireland, to the delight of Irish Republicans, is once more an international issue thanks to Johnson.
But, of course, nothing that Johnson has done to Northern Ireland since the Brexit referendum in 2016, when it voted 56 per cent to 44 per cent to stay in the EU, has much to do with the future of the province. Devoting so much political energy to gutting the Protocol only makes political sense from Johnson’s point of view as a way of getting the European Research Group to support his leadership.
Even if this ploy does not work, it puts friction with the EU back on top of the media agenda and diverts attention from other troubles such as the revolt by Conservative MPs, Partygate and the general political shambles.
As a toxic bit of diversionary tactics, the bill shares the stage with flying refugees to Rwanda as a high visibility “wedge issue” geared to distracting the public and turning past scandals and failures into ancient history.
There is nothing wrong or surprising about the resurgence of English nationalism since national revival is a worldwide phenomenon. Nationalism always contains a strong element of fantasy and wish-fulfilment, but the English variant of this type of communal identity appears to be more impractical than most. Coping with immigrants crossing the Channel from France in flimsy boats obviously requires cooperation with France but instead we have a headline-grabbing scheme to fly refugees to Rwanda.
Likewise, the success of the GFA depended on recognition that there were two communities in Northern Ireland, each with an entirely different set of loyalties and these would have to inhabit a single statelet that looks both to Britain and the Republic of Ireland. The DUP, whatever they now pretend, never liked the GFA and relished the idea of Brexit re-establishing a hard Irish land border. To their horror, their leaders found that they had outsmarted themselves and the new trade border ran down the Irish Sea.
The present idea appears to be that there will be no real border between Britain and the EU and British ministers will be able to pick and choose which parts of the Protocol they plan to implement or disregard. This is clearly not going to work and may be a bargaining position, but it will raise unionist expectations and nationalist fears and produce nothing but turmoil.