Sam McBride: Northern Ireland is in a breathtakingly undemocratic position which dishonest Boris Johnson knows is indefensible – yet he knowingly chose it

Six weeks after the Irish Sea border began, it is more contentious than ever and efforts to delay, unilaterally suspend, or remove the new trade frontier are intensifying.

Saturday, 13th February 2021, 7:55 am
In almost every significant regard, what Boris Johnson once tore apart is what has now happened because he decided it should be so
In almost every significant regard, what Boris Johnson once tore apart is what has now happened because he decided it should be so

However, there is one area which sits above and beyond the debate on Brexit, the debate on the Northern Ireland Protocol, or the constitutional debate about Irish unity – democracy. If the protocol does survive, it is now clear that it will involve a breathtakingly undemocratic situation – indeed, it is an anti-democratic situation because those responsible actively chose this outcome in the knowledge of what it meant.

Two and a half years ago, Boris Johnson was welcomed to the DUP party conference as a saviour. Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds beamed as he told them what they wanted to hear, failing to comprehend that he was using them to lever himself into Downing Street.

If they had read the erudite Sir Max Hastings three months earlier, they would have known from the former Daily Telegraph editor who was Mr Johnson’s first boss that his former Brussels Correspondent’ had an “uneasy relationship with the truth” and that he “will say absolutely anything to man, woman or child that will give them pleasure at that moment, heedless of whether he may be obliged to contradict it ten minutes later”.

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Those qualities were evident in the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza hotel in south Belfast that Saturday afternoon. Denouncing Theresa May’s draft deal with the EU, he warned that “we are on the verge of making a historic mistake...we are going to stay in the customs union. We are going to stay in the single market. We are going to be rule takers. Unless we junk this backstop, we will find that Brussels has got us exactly where they want us – a satellite state”.

As the DUP roared him on, the then backbench MP referred derisively to how “we are witnessing the birth of a new country called UK-NI. UK-NI is no longer exclusively ruled by London or Stormont – it is in large part to be ruled by Brussels. And UK-NI will have to accept large swathes of EU regulations now and in the future.”

He went on: “If we wanted to do free trade deals, if we wanted to cut tariffs or vary our regulation then we would have to leave Northern Ireland behind as an economic semi-colony of the EU and we would be damaging the fabric of the Union with regulatory checks and even customs controls between GB and NI – on top of those extra regulatory checks down the Irish Sea that are already envisaged in the Withdrawal Agreement...it is self-evidently not taking back control of our laws.”

In almost every significant regard, what Mr Johnson then tore apart is what has now happened because he decided it should be so – but now claims is a terrible surprise.

But away from the dispute about where the border should go – which in our tribal political landscape has, inevitably, been drenched in orange and green – and the duplicity of the man who is now Prime Minister, that speech highlighted a problem with Mrs May’s plan which transcends political debate. He identified, as had many others, that Northern Ireland would be bound by laws over which it has no democratic say. He identified that such an arrangement would be indefensible. And yet, that is now what he has imposed upon Northern Ireland.

Even in Vladamir Putin’s Russia, such a transparently undemocratic move would be audacious, and would probably be disguised in apparently democratic garb. But here the proposal stands nakedly ugly.

We now must obey thousands of EU regulations. As of today, that makes little practical difference because for decades we have been members of the EU. But with Great Britain now out of the EU and Northern Ireland half-in the EU, every act of divergence in either Brussels or London will open up more areas of difference in the Irish Sea.

We will have to adopt all new EU laws relevant to the single market for goods and our democratic representatives will have no vote on those laws because we no longer elect MEPs and the Assembly will have no ability to block these measures.

That means that for a Northern Ireland company facing a proposed law which could destroy its business, it can either lobby Brussels directly, lobby through Stormont, lobby through the government, lobby through the Irish government, or lobby through an Irish MEP. The thread running through each of those possibilities is clear.

The decision-makers are not voted for by the people of Northern Ireland, and thus they are unaccountable to the people who own and work in that business.

As the EU’s willingness to trigger Article 16 over its own vaccine failures demonstrated, Brussels is not a wholly benevolent force; where its interests diverge from ours then its decision-makers have no voters to fear in Northern Ireland.

It is not just companies which will be impacted by new laws – those wanting to promote, stop or amend a law could be a farmer, a fisherman, a doctor, an environmental group, or just an ordinary member of the public. Every one of them will be disenfranchised. As the constitutional scholar Vernon Bognador wrote last week, it will be regulation without representation – a breathtakingly undemocratic proposition.

Optimists will say that each issue can be resolved if both sides are pragmatic, as seen recently in the resolution to the threat of huge tariffs on GB steel coming into Northern Ireland. But there are two problems with that. Firstly, there may not be goodwill between the UK and EU, leaving Northern Ireland to suffer because of a dispute elsewhere. But even if there is pragmatism and resolutions are found, it is not a democratic solution.

Just as a benign dictator is in principle undemocratic even if he is a kindly ruler, so even a good outcome here does not – in democratic terms – justify the means.

There will be a series of complex bureaucratic mechanisms through which local views on laws could be fed to Brussels. But none of those mechanisms provides a democratic say for citizens.

The UK-EU joint committee will have a key role. But it is not democratically accountable to the public. Stormont ministers will – on special occasions – be allowed to attend joint committee meetings. But they are not the decision-makers – instead, they are also glorified lobbyists who can neither decide nor be held democratically accountable for what is decided.

It is the case that there will be an Assembly ‘democratic consent’ vote in almost four years’ time on whether the approve the Northern Ireland Protocol or reject it. But that is drastically short of the basic democratic principle that those bound by laws should have a democratic say in whether those laws apply to them by voting for legislators before laws are passed – not after they have been in place for years.

While some will prosper from the new Irish Sea border – as capitalism ensures winners even in an economic depression or war – by the time Stormont gets to vote on EU regulations there may be businesses which will have been bankrupted because of laws to which they must adhere.

And even if Stormont was to retrospectively reject the entire NI Protocol – akin to having to vote for Irish unity as the only way to avoid a single piece of legislation with which one disagrees – the government and the EU have been opaque as to whether they will truly respect that democratic decision.

The NIO has declined to give a clear commitment that it would not in those circumstances seek to make minor tweaks to the Irish Sea border and then simply reimpose it without democratic consent.

Sinn Féin has suggested that Northern Ireland should be allowed to elect MEPs – but even that dramatic move would not fully address the issue because the European Commission is appointed by member governments.

The uncomfortable truth here for unionists – and for the DUP which clasped Mr Johnson to its bosom before making him Prime Minister – is that he knowingly chose this route.

Mr Johnson’s 2018 speech proves that he was not ignorant. He had identified the problem and grasped its profound significance. But he did it anyway. That says much about him – and about the judgement of those who enabled him to do so.

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