TOIf you ask a stupid question, you will get a stupid answer. The Northern Ireland protocol is a stupid answer: it imposes a complex bureaucracy on the movement of ordinary goods across the Irish Sea. But it is the only possible answer to a problem created by Boris Johnson. The reason it keeps popping up over and over again, like a ghoul on a ghost train, is that it requires Johnson and his government to do something that goes against the entire Brexit project: recognize that options have costs.
There used to be a game show on American television and radio called Truth or Consequences. It was so popular that a the whole city in New Mexico it bears his name. It is where we live now. In each episode, the contestant was asked a deliberately silly question, and when they didn’t answer it, they had to perform a quirky or embarrassing stunt.
We have reached that point in the Brexit show. The question is: why did it divide a part of the UK from the rest, creating a chimerical country in which most of the body is outside the EU single market while one foot is still inside? Given that it is unanswerable, we get the shameful trick: the demand that the EU must break a crucial part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, or else.
Or else what? Britain will unilaterally suspend the protocol’s operation, force-feed the people of Northern Ireland a good English sausage, unleash retaliatory trade sanctions by the EU, destroy Britain’s reputation as a trusted partner for any country in its sanity and will profoundly antagonize the Biden administration in Washington. with whom you hope to make a historic trade agreement. Good luck with all of that.
Speaking on Wednesday, after he published his wildly unrealistic set of demands on the Northern Ireland protocol, which were roundly rejected Thursday by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Brexit Minister David Frost, He said the negotiations with the EU “have not got to the heart of the problem.” That is the only truth he spoke.
So what is the heart of the problem? It’s not the great Ulster sausage famine. It does not lie in the complexities of phytosanitary standards or legal interpretation mechanisms, all of which could be resolved with pragmatism and mutual trust. When this problem is dissected, the message written on your heart will be: Boris Johnson is constitutionally incapable of accepting the relationship between cause and effect.
The protocol itself can be tricky, both in its dense technocratic language and in its practical operation. But behind him hides a crude and simple reality. Johnson and the rest of the Brexiters had a choice to make. They could isolate the UK from the single market and the EU customs union. Or they could prioritize the integrity of the UK itself.
They couldn’t do both, and they still can’t. The sad soap opera of the protocol is driven by his need to wish to make this unpleasant fact disappear. You can’t bake your “oven-ready” Brexit bid and then remove one of the main ingredients from the final dish. The EU has much better things to do than take a trip back to the infernal boredom of Brexternity. But for Frost and Johnson, impossible is nothing. Performative belligerence is not limited by the limits of what can be achieved. Its main function, in fact, is the denial of reality.
The reality, in this case, is the existence within the United Kingdom of a very complex, ambiguous, troubled and fragile place: Northern Ireland. There is good reason why, in the run-up to the 2016 referendum, the Vote Leave campaign assiduously avoided the question of what would happen to this uncomfortable policy if the UK left the EU. If you are offering a three-word slogan as a proposal to voters, you really don’t want to start mapping the future of a border with more crosses than the entire eastern flank of the EU and a history as tangled as its geography.
But the repressed returns. Theresa May, despite her misery, at least had the honesty to face two truths. One was that there could be no return to a hard frontier on the island of Ireland. The other was that, to avoid it, Britain would have to choose between equally unpleasant alternatives.
Because it is inextricably intertwined with the rest of Ireland, and therefore with the EU, Northern Ireland was always going to have to stay closely aligned with the single market. The British government could deal with this fact in two ways. You could put the union first and decide that the same alignment regime would apply to the whole of the UK. Or he could put a hard Brexit first and accept that separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK was a price worth paying for it.
May decided that the most important thing was the integrity of the union. Hence the infamous endorsement, which shaped Brexit around the need to have the same rules for Northern Ireland as for Great Britain. Johnson and the ERG made the opposite decision. They traded the integrity of the union for Britain’s freedom to sever its ties to the European trading system.
It is worth remembering how quickly and casually Johnson made this decision. He did it in 90 minutes, during a meeting with then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Wirral in October 2019. He took it as a lifeline to save himself; Without that agreement, his first ministry might have been the shortest on record.
Remember also that the ERG made the same decision. On the DUP’s betrayal wailing, all hardliners of Brexit decided that having the same rules for the whole of the UK was less important than achieving their version of freedom.
This would be quite fair, if it weren’t for the great cloud of ignorance that hangs over everything that has to do with Brexit. What refuses to be known is the connection between choices and results. The basic proposition that the way you make your bed is the way you lie has never been accepted by the British government.
That government is now effectively blaming the rest for the protocol: If they hadn’t caused so much trouble in parliament, poor Johnson would never have signed it. The argument is that the political chaos unleashed by Brexit frees the very people who created it from any responsibility for their own decisions. It’s the familiar excuse for magistrates: I’m sorry, boss, but we were terribly drunk at the time.
The elections, in this sorry plea, were never really taken. They have disappeared. But sadly, the same cannot be said for the consequences, especially for the people of Northern Ireland. They have to live with effects that, in Johnson’s retelling of the story, were accidental and unintended. The three-word Brexit slogan has been replaced by a four-letter word: oops.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism