It’s that time of year again. It may be coincidence, or it may be something about the advent of the Christmas season, but this always seems to be the time that Britain is approaching a new crisis point in the never-ending Brexit saga.
Three years ago, you may remember, it was Theresa May with a withdrawal agreement that she was unable to get through the House of Commons. Two years ago a new prime minister, Boris Johnson, had secured his own withdrawal agreement and was preparing to fight an election on it (which he won), and just last year Johnson was up against the clock in negotiations for a new trade agreement with the European Union.
The trade agreement was duly signed at the last minute, and came into effect at the beginning of this year, replacing the transitional Brexit arrangements. But now, late in the year, here we are back on the Brexit train. More remarkably, the issue is the same one that repeatedly plagued earlier phases of the project, namely the status of Northern Ireland.
Johnson’s party, the Conservatives, are traditionally the party that most strongly supports the union of Northern Ireland with Great Britain (the “Conservative and Unionist Party”, it used to call itself). So two years ago it was a notable sign of how completely Brexit had possessed it when, apparently without a second thought, it signed up to his plan to throw Northern Ireland overboard in order to clinch the withdrawal agreement.
That agreement provided for Northern Ireland to effectively remain within the EU’s customs union, so as to avoid friction on its land border with Ireland. Instead, such controls as were necessary would be imposed on goods moving across the Irish Sea. This, not surprisingly, was anathema to the Unionists of Northern Ireland, whose political program is based on treating the province as an integral part of the United Kingdom.
And it wasn’t long before the Conservatives started having doubts as well. In September last year the government proposed legislation that would have allowed it to unilaterally alter the Northern Ireland customs arrangements. It backed down when pushed in the trade negotiations, but it has not given up the objective of somehow wriggling out of the agreement that it made, and during this year has been intermittently engaged in talks with the EU to try to modify the Northern Ireland situation in its favor.
The main Unionist party in the province, the DUP, wants the British government to scrap the Northern Ireland protocol entirely. But Johnson knows that any drastic action would bring inevitable EU retaliation, and he faces the same problem Britain has faced through the varied years of negotiation: the EU’s capacity to absorb pain from the disruption of trade is much greater than Britain’s.
So this week David Frost, Johnson’s minister for Brexit, sounded a conciliatory note. Visiting Northern Ireland, where business leaders apparently told him “to stop risking a trade war with the EU,” he stressed that the government has no objection in principle to controls on the Irish Sea border, but was only seeking an agreement that would streamline the process and avoid unnecessary obstructions.
But if that really is the government’s position – and with Johnson, of course, the ground can always shift unpredictably – it puts it on a collision course with the DUP, whose position is ideological rather than practical. It can’t accept that Northern Ireland is anything other than fully British, even though the consequences of that view appear to lead to a hard border with the republic: which in turn would push opinion in the province towards reunification.
What’s involved is not just a clash between British and European economic interests, but a clash between two ways of doing politics: the practical level of having to find policies that work, and the symbolic or tribal level where practicalities take second place to trolling. The latter is Johnson’s natural habitat, but at the back of his mind he knows that to try to run a major country that way is courting disaster. He has a realist streak that the DUP apparently lacks.
That’s why, to the surprise of many of his supporters, he reached agreement with the EU in both 2019 and 2020. Odds are that they will manage to patch up their differences a third time.