The narrative that Boris is responsible for problems in the North hinders the search for actual solutions

Published: 15 April 2021

Our Prime Minister consistently reminds me of William Brown, Richmal Crompton’s 11-year-old hero, a natural leader whose optimism leads him to promise more than he can deliver. This regularly lands him and his followers in deep trouble, whereupon his brilliance/luck saves the day. Disaster followed by triumph is the story of Boris’s Brexit and Covid.

This time, however, he has the problem of Northern Ireland. Unionists accuse him of treacherously undermining their constitutional position through the adoption of the Northern Ireland protocol, which creates an internal border in the Irish Sea. Republicans are crowing about the imminence of a united Ireland.

Nightly rioting would still be occurring but for the death of Prince Philip. Disaffected, angry loyalists have no trust in government and little in such institutions as the police and the justice system, but they still honour the monarchy. The prince made 57 visits to Northern Ireland, the last just before he stepped out of public life in 2017 when he presented Gold Duke of Edinburgh Awards. Although they didn’t apologise for the IRA murder of his uncle Louis Mountbatten, in Stormont even Sinn Fein joined a chorus of thanks for his public service and his and the Royal family’s work towards peace and reconciliation.

The simple family funeral at Windsor on Saturday will bring comfort to all those who obeyed Covid regulations and stayed away from the funerals of loved ones, only to see on television the massive funeral of an IRA terrorist attended by many Sinn Fein leaders last year. The announcement by the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland that no one would be charged triggered the riots, but even worse and more fundamental is the protocol. Saturday night is predicted to see a return to widespread violence.

And Boris will be blamed. And that is not fair. Yes, he went back on his word and agreed to a border in the Irish Sea to save Brexit, but as Prime Minister of the UK he has to put its interests above that of any constituent part. Remember why that was the stark choice.

We voted in June 2016 to leave the EU, David Cameron resigned, Theresa May, a Remainer, became Prime Minister and chose a gentlemanly career civil servant as her main Brexit adviser. They were fatally bullied by the EU into agreeing a sequencing of negotiations that put the UK at a disadvantage and weaponised Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny had to resign, and Leo Varadkar, his successor, axed the working group he had instructed to devise ways of making a land border as painless as possible. At every turn, Varadkar obeyed EU negotiator Michel Barnier and backed up his intransigent position by echoing Sinn Fein warnings that any kind of land border would lead to republican violence and the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement – which is arrant nonsense.

May was weakened by a disastrous general election, Barnier made mincemeat of hamstrung British opposite numbers, and as a country we had months and months of parliamentary chaos over what was known as the backstop that would keep Northern Ireland in the single market. Its consistent rejection by Parliament led to May’s political demise, Boris becoming leader, him appointing a buccaneering negotiator, David Frost, winning a big majority and pulling off a deal that saved Brexit. The price was a protocol which is a better deal that the backstop, and indeed offers great financial possibilities to Northern Ireland, but is wreaking havoc because the EU has applied it vindictively to cause maximum disruption to trade. Joe Biden’s ill-informed bleatings about the Agreement haven’t helped.

There is some hope, though. Micheál Martin, Varadkar’s successor, is wise and reasonable and does not bang a green drum. The EU is somewhat chastened by the vaccine fiasco, while the Commission’s (brief) invocation of Article 16 of the protocol to stop the export of vaccines made a farce of its opposition to a land border. Now everyone has discovered that it is not only republicans that throw petrol bombs.

Lord Frost is in Brussels today charged with averting disaster. Can he return to Boris bearing a rabbit to pull triumphantly out of his top hat? Only if the EU accepts that it is to blame for the mess it has created.

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