Alex Kane: Unionism must find a way to make Boris Johnson listen

My problem with Boris Johnson is that I have enormous difficulty trusting him to protect my interests as a unionist in Northern Ireland: or to protect my citizenship of the United Kingdom.

Monday, 21st June 2021, 1:00 pm
Updated Monday, 21st June 2021, 2:51 pm

I watched him – I was just a few feet away – address the DUP conference in Belfast in November 2018, when he told the audience that regulatory and customs checks in the Irish Sea would not happen on his watch: “I have to tell you no British Conservative government could or should sign up to any such arrangement … (leaving) Northern Ireland as an economic semi-colony of the EU”.

Back then he supported the DUP’s rejection of the withdrawal deal because it would mean the United Kingdom remaining in a customs union with the EU (which is not what was voted for in the 2016 referendum). And yet he negotiated and signed off on a protocol that left Northern Ireland, in effect, in both the EU’s single market and customs union. In other words, while it was clearly intolerable to him that Great Britain should remain within the EU, it was obviously clearly tolerable that another part of the UK should remain in a different jurisdiction.

Ironically, had the rule to block the movement of chilled meats such as fresh sausages existed 18 months ago, Johnson would not have been able to get his Irish Sea border ‘porkie’ into place. And boy, what a ‘porkie’ it was. He lied over and over again about it: insisting that it wouldn’t happen and even telling a former chairman of the Conservative Party in NI (at an event in Belfast in November 2019) to tear up any letters he received about potential regulations.

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Boris Johnson chose to approve the NI Protocol even though he knew how unsettling political unionism would find it

But he ratified the protocol and even had the brass neck to argue it represented the best of both worlds. Yes, the man who thumped the lectern and roared his dismissal of semi-colonial status in 2018 approved and delivered an arrangement that did just that to Northern Ireland in 2021.

The man who trumpeted the geographical/constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom and created a body to promote the values and benefits of the Union (in its centenary year) is the same man who undermined the integrity and ignored the values.

Yet this man, this preposterous political rascal, is the man unionists now need to take their side and, at the very least, acknowledge there is a problem – of his making – which he needs to resolve. Bizarrely, I didn’t see this man’s face on any of the posters at recent protest meetings.

I say bizarrely, because the protocol that is causing so much angst among sections of unionism/loyalism (although I’m not yet persuaded the majority of them feel the same way – which is something the LCC and others should bear in mind) is the handiwork of Boris Johnson It would not exist without his imprimatur. He chose to approve it even though he knew how unsettling political unionism would find it. And if he really does believe the protocol is required to protect the Good Friday Agreement, then it surely follows he further believes the agreement trumps the constitutional interests of unionists in Northern Ireland?

To be honest I don’t think Johnson actually gives a toss one way or the other about unionists, or about NI’s position within the UK. That’s not to say, of course, that he wouldn’t stand at the dispatch box in the House of Commons at the next PM’s question time and lie his shirt, trousers, pants and arse off, if asked a direct question about his commitment to Northern Ireland by a DUP MP: or by any other MP for that matter.

Which raises an interesting question. If you really don’t care all that much about something then how far would you go to protect and promote it? Unionists accuse him of rolling over to the EU, the Irish government and assorted ‘threats’ from elements of republicanism.

But if those accusations are correct it raises four immediate questions: does he roll over because he doesn’t care about unionist interests; does he roll over because he’s in some way afraid of the ‘threats’; does he roll over because the needs of his Conservative/new generation English nationalist base trump all other considerations; or does he roll over because he believes the protocol really is the best way of protecting the NI political/peace process (even if he has been dismally inadequate, so far, in promoting that argument)?

There are other questions too, I imagine. But if unionist/loyalist protests, responses and strategies are to amount to something that is positive for their long-term interests, then they need to have a fairly accurate assessment of what the answers to the questions are. But at this point I’m not sure they do have those answers. Let me add right away that I’m not entirely sure of some of the answers myself.

What I do stand by, though, is my innate distrust of Johnson. Some people who know him reasonably well have tried to persuade me that he can and should be trusted because, “he really does care for the Union, Alex and Northern Ireland won’t be abandoned under his watch”. Hmm. I haven’t forgotten his promise about NI not being reduced to semi-colony status “under my watch”.

The problem for unionism is that he is prime minister. NI’s fate lies in his hands. Somehow unionists have to find a way of getting him to listen. But achieving that requires greater strategy and subtlety than we’re seeing now.

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Alistair Bushe