Ben Lowry: From a unionist viewpoint, the Boris Johnson Brexit plan is both a triumph and a disaster

Nigel Dodds MP, Arlene Foster MLA and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP listen to the prime minister, Boris Johnson, addressing the DUP drinks reception at the Conservative Party conference on Tuesday October 1. The event was full of patriotic fervour, then hours later Mr Johnson's Brexit plan was unveiled
Nigel Dodds MP, Arlene Foster MLA and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP listen to the prime minister, Boris Johnson, addressing the DUP drinks reception at the Conservative Party conference on Tuesday October 1. The event was full of patriotic fervour, then hours later Mr Johnson's Brexit plan was unveiled
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The often cited Rudyard Kipling verse that urges people to find their inner resolve in face of adversity goes as follows:

‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same,’

In those lines, in the poem entitled If, Kipling was advising people to treat those two extreme situations the same, not suggesting they are likely to happen simultaneously.

But triumph and disaster can happen at the same time.

Consider, from a unionist constitutional perspective, Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan. If approved it it will be both disaster and triumph.

It is a disaster in that it introduces a major barrier to internal UK trade (subject to a Stormont role that will probably be a fig leaf) that was never there before.

Ten years ago a full regulatory Irish Sea border to check standards of all goods (not just the limited existing checks of livestock loads) would have been unthinkable.

The barely noticeable nature of the checks is not the problem, it is the principle — and the unknowable long term consequences.

No other major country of which I am aware has such an internal trade barrier. It is expressly forbidden between the states of the US.

There was no thought of such a situation between Northern Ireland and Great Britain pre Brexit. Yet now it is set to be imposed by a Conservative and Unionist Party government, propped up by DUP.

The Tories did not want such a barrier, nor did the DUP. But there is little prospect of an EU deal in the absence of such a UK gesture.

There might have been if the Tories had had an overall majority in Parliament, but Boris Johnson’s minority administration has been mandated by MPs to reach a deal or else extend EU membership.

Even a Tory government with a huge parliamentary majority might have been refused an EU exit deal without some guaranteed trade convergence on this island.

How then could Mr Johnson’s plan be a triumph for unionism?

Well, if it is approved (which is looking likely at the Westminster end but unlikely in Brussels) then 50% of the backstop is dropped.

By taking NI out of the customs union, which relates to tariffs, the UK will have asserted its right to bring about greater divergence at the Irish border than now.

Current divergence between the two jurisdictions at the land frontier is already substantial: the currency changes, as does fuel duty, VAT, income tax, speed limits, and a body of laws.

A change in customs arrangements, leading to tariffs, would add a whole new layer to the distinctions between north and south.

This is why the Irish Republic and Irish nationalists are so ideologically opposed (businesses are opposed on pragmatic grounds).

So if this deal passes, it is a unionist triumph only in the sense that it mitigates the much greater constitutional disaster of the overall backstop, which would have kept NI in EU customs union and single market, probably forever.

The UK has always said there cannot be an internal tariff border. When I interviewed the chancellor Philip Hammond (see link below) last year he said: “One of the challenges we have had over the last few months is getting the EU to understand that the no east/west border is as non-negotiable a part of this picture as no north/south border is for them.”

But Theresa May’s solution was to keep the entire UK aligned to EU customs. Boris Johnson’s solution is the opposite, to take all UK out.

Mrs May’s solution was no north-south or east-west tariffs. Mr Johnson’s means none east-west, but there will be north-south tariffs.

Once again, NI business representatives including the Ulster Farmers Union say this is unacceptable. They complain that this plan means two borders — north-south for tariffs, east-west for goods.

They say that they do not want a trade border in any direction, but the logic of their position is that if there has to be such a trade border then a full Irish Sea border is better than anywhere in Ireland.

If this is what the UFU thinks, why did it not campaign for Remain in the Brexit referendum as other business groups did?

Boris Johnson’s plan is likely to lead to some pressure put on Dublin, almost for the first time in the process. There will be at least some influential figures in EU capitals who can see the problem with dividing a nation’s customs territory.

It also flushes out the Irish position, which is not that there must be no checks on the island, but that there must be no divergence in customs or standards on the island.

The endless Irish demand for ‘workable proposals’ to avoid checks is disingenuous, because even if there was technology that could see through trucks and monitor every commercial movement perfectly from afar, Dublin would reject the divergence that makes the checks necessary.

Northern Ireland unionists do share some blame for events.

Scottish unionists such as Ruth Davidson saw Brexit as a threat to Scotland, and argued first against it, then loyally tried to help Mrs May get a softer deal.

Gibraltar saw trouble too and voted 96% against Brexit, then also argued for a mild Brexit.

In Northern Ireland there was no unionist push for a ‘Norway’ model which would have seen the whole UK leave the customs union and the whole UK stay in single market.

In any event Theresa May talked tough and ruled out such a soft Brexit. Had she endorsed it as a sensible place to park the UK for 30+ years, and had unionists endorsed that, there would have been no regulatory border anywhere and no Irish Sea border whatsoever.

There would also have been plenty of time to make the case for the resulting customs Irish land border.

And it might just have won the day.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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• Ben Lowry 2018: Interview with Philip Hammond

• In Monday’s newspaper, Ben Lowry talks to Tory members about the Union