Ben Lowry: Echoes of 2019, as Boris Johnson fails to proclaim his unionism in his keynote speech to Tories

There was an interesting symmetry to the Conservative conference this week and the last one that the party held, two years previously almost to the day.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 9th October 2021, 9:51 pm
Updated Saturday, 9th October 2021, 10:18 pm
Boris Johnson has been highly critical of the Northern Ireland Protocol yet he did not mention it in his keynote conference speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, above
Boris Johnson has been highly critical of the Northern Ireland Protocol yet he did not mention it in his keynote conference speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, above

I was at both four-day events, and both times I reported on the fact that there was a lot of talk during the conference in support of the Union and of Northern Ireland.

But both this year and then the fine talk was not reflected in Boris Johnson’s keynote speech on the Wednesday, which wrapped up the gathering.

What happened in October 2019 was particularly noteworthy.

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The DUP were almost the star turn at the then conference, which is hardly surprising given that they were at the time still propping up the Conservatives in power in Westminster.

Leading members of Northern Ireland’s then biggest political party were speaking at various prestigious fringe Tory events at the 2019 conference in Manchester.

I remember walking past a tent which was holding a popular drinks reception, and peering in at the dignitaries to see Jacob Rees Mogg talking warmly to Arlene Foster.

On the penultimate night Boris Johnson was the main attraction at a DUP event, for which long queues of Conservative members gathered to gain entry.

I interviewed many of those Tories, who said things such as there was nothing more important than the Union.

Then on October 2 2021, in his big address to conference delegates, under signs of Get Brexit Done, I was struck by the way that the prime minister made no major reference to Northern Ireland, and did not repeat any of his fighting talk the night before at the DUP event. Then, to cheers, he had emphasised his unionism.

Later that day Mr Johnson’s initial offer to the EU of a regulatory — but not customs — border in the Irish Sea was issued.

This was a huge climbdown from his specific pledge to the DUP — which indeed he flew to Belfast to make — that both a tariff and a regulatory internal UK barrier were unacceptable.

The DUP supported that dramatic new plan of 2019, but it has been careful to point out the various reasons why it did so, including what it says was a proposed Stormont lock (see link below to a recent letter by Lord Dodds on this point).

It is also only fair to note the extreme pressure the DUP had been under to give ground since late 2017, when Theresa May in her backstop conceded in principle the Irish nationalist demand that there be no change whatsoever at the Irish land border, not so much as CCTV.

As the months passed, and the political stalemate over Brexit got ever more entrenched, I remember an article in 2019 by the influential columnist with The Times, Danny Finkelstein, entitled: ‘The DUP’s answer is always the same: no’.

The party was being blamed for delaying a reasonable Brexit deal, when in fact it was rightly holding out on matters of core constitutional principle.

Even so, the DUP endorsement, while it was made in extremis, of Mr Johnson’s initial regulatory border plan just after the 2019 conference (also held in Manchester) was ruthlessly used as a stepping stone by him to the full border contained in the Northern Ireland Protocol — both regulatory and, in effect, customs too, and with reduced, retrospective say for Stormont.

Defenders of the prime minister, with considerable justification, say that the original sin was the weakness of Mrs May in 2017.

They also point out the hopeless arithmetic of Parliament in late 2019, and the way in which MPs effectively tried to force the government into a Brexit on the EU’s terms — a scenario which could only be avoided by a major concession on Northern Ireland.

This, while true, is not the full story.

It does not explain three things.

One, why the PM turned on Nigel Dodds in a despicable way when he challenged the capitulation to Leo Varadkar days after it happened. Mr Johnson turned to MPs, to get them to side with him against the then DUP deputy leader, and said that he hoped no party in NI would want a veto.

Never once has Mr Johnson or any leading government minister so much as hinted at the veto Sinn Fein wields over Stormont if it does not get key demands — notably after it collapsed devolution in 2017.

Two, why Mr Johnson was back slapping with European leaders days after agreeing the protocol with Mr Varadkar.

If he really was a unionist, and had had simply no option but to jettison part of his nation to secure an international deal, then why was he not sombre and deflated?

It is remarkable to see how some unionists still chum around with Mr Johnson.

Mrs May, for all her weakness, was evidently deeply concerned about losing Northern Ireland, and the agonising choices she faced were etched on her face for years.

Three, if the EU is now going to agree things such as removal of medicines from the protocol, why then did Mr Johnson’s negotiators not secure this in 2019?

I talked to a Tory MP this week, who is more unionist than most English politicians, and he told me candidly that the protocol had happened so quickly its impact had not been widely understood.

Whatever the exact understandings and motives of the government in late 2019, it has long since come to see the great damage that the Irish Sea border is doing to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. That part of its current tough rhetoric is for real.

As is the EU retreat in tone. No-one is now talking about rigorous implementation of the protocol. There has been no end of eye rolling at the past mistakes by Brexiteers, but very little about how misguided were such calls for the full force of the Irish Sea border.

This week in Manchester I interviewed Lord Frost, who is leading the UK charge to reform the protocol, and have little doubt that he is serious about wanting reform to it or even that he is prepared to see Article 16 triggered to suspend the trade barrier (see link to a video of him saying so, and also a video of the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith saying similar).

The decision, however, will rest with the prime minister.

If he takes radical action over the NI Protocol, he will face a trade war with the EU.

Does his unionism go that far?

Perhaps the failure to mention the Irish Sea border was innocent enough.

Perhaps it reflected an understanding that his audience is not that interested in NI.

I just hope it doesn’t signal that a deal on largely EU terms is coming.

• Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter acting editor

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Ben Lowry

Acting Editor