Ben Lowry: Whatever future Boris Johnson adopts for Northern Ireland seems set to lead to a crisis

Young journalists are taught to avoid clichés, such as the word ‘crisis’.

Saturday, 13th March 2021, 1:08 pm
Updated Saturday, 13th March 2021, 4:37 pm
London, which commentators including Ben Lowry have accused of being weak over Northern Ireland, is taking a more robust line in defence of the Union. Boris Johnson’s visit yesterday, meeting soldiers who are helping with Covid, was part of that

The term has been used a lot since the Brexit vote of 2016, yet most of the predicted crises did not come to pass.

Late last year, there was a consensus in the political and media worlds that a ‘no deal’ UK exit from the EU transition period was the most likely outcome. But, at the height of such speculation, I was struck by a broadcast discussion in which an experienced Westminster observer and a similarly informed Brussels one both said that in fact there was at least a 90% chance of a deal.

In other words, ‘no deal’, which could have caused a genuine crisis in the UK and an even greater one in Northern Ireland, was far less likely than most pundits were suggesting.

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But I really do fear impending crisis after reading all of Sam McBride’s interview with Brandon Lewis (you will have seen the print version at the front of the paper, a fuller version is on our website, see link below).

There are essentially two outcomes, neither of them palatable.

The first is that the UK huffs and puffs as it always does and then climbs down, abandoning and betraying and upsetting NI unionists in a way that is too terrified ever to do to NI nationalists. I still think that is the most likely outcome.

The second outcome is that it really does plan to ignore, jettison or over-ride parts of the NI Protocol.

That was already the impression that emerged from its recent decision to extend unilaterally the implementation grace periods for the Irish Sea border. It is also what seems to emerge from the secretary of state’s interview.

Mr Lewis says, for example, that he is cautiously optimistic that “we’ll get a mutually agreeable solution” to one of the thorniest coming problems, the looming ban on moving chilled meats from GB to NI.

But how on earth will he get such agreement given that he also reveals an upping of the diplomatic war with the EU over the protocol’s soil import ban?

Mr Lewis says that UK has issued guidance that means that there is no such ban. Almost no-one spotted that this was permanent. It was instead assumed to be part of the UK extension to grace periods.

But if the new, permanent guidance was such an easy solution to the soil issue, then the EU would have accepted such an interpretation of the protocol. Its approach to implementation has been the opposite.

Brussels has made clear not only that it will hold the UK to its legal commitments under the trade deal, but that it already thinks parts of the protocol have not been enforced (such as sharing of data).

It is fully intending enforcement to move on to the next stage when the grace periods end.

Already the European Parliament is stalling on approving the Brexit trade deal. Is it possible that London partly hopes MEPs will indeed reject it and this will give them an escape route back to square one?

There is no sign that Boris Johnson has such a radical plan.

What then happens if, as I expect, his government climbs down in face of threats from every angle — from the EU, Ireland, the US, and from within the UK Parliament?

Then we are back on course to implementing a protocol, the disastrous nature of which for weeks has been dawning on the full spectrum of unionism, and also on the many Tory MPs who still have residual support for NI’s place in the Union.

As if things weren’t bad enough on pet movements, on soil, on foods, this week we reported that medicines fall under the EU orbit next January. This news comes just when the vaccine rollout success has shown the benefits of the UK.

We have already seen how almost all unionists who wanted to work the protocol, and talk up its advantages, now want it scrapped.

Neither the DUP or UUP long-term plan to deal with this, yes, crisis is clear. They know that they will face a unified, furious Alliance-to-Sinn Fein coalition if the protocol is scrapped or if Stormont falls.

They also know that rank-and-file unionists are increasingly unlikely to accept delay or fudge solutions to a protocol that is now widely seen to inflict major constitutional damage to our place in UK.

London, which commentators such as me have often accused of being weak over Northern Ireland, is taking a more robust line in defence of the Union. Boris Johnson’s visit to the Province yesterday, meeting soldiers who are helping with Covid, was part of that.

What is far from clear is whether he has the political will or capital to follow through on it. And if not, how this self-proclaimed unionist plans to manage the complete alienation of unionists in Northern Ireland.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

• Other columns by Ben Lowry below

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