I know we’re not supposed to be shocked or even surprised by anything Boris Johnson says any more – “Boris is Boris” and all that. But still I find that one of the comments revealed in Alex Spence’s excellent Buzzfeed scoop about the Foreign Secretary is gnawing at me. It’s this:
“It’s so small and there are so few firms that actually use that border regularly, it’s just beyond belief that we’re allowing the tail to wag the dog in this way. We’re allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly.”
He was referring to the small matter of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, to which so much attention is paid in the Brexit talks.
There are reasons for that, of course, and not just reasons of parliamentary arithmetic. Even if the May government was not dependent on the DUP, the questions over Northern Ireland would be the same. Those questions include “If we get this wrong will people start blowing stuff up again?” and “could this potentially put Northern Ireland on a path to leaving the UK?” And as with so many things in life, anyone who tells you the answers to questions like those are clear-cut, black and white matters of simple certainty is either lying or selling something or both. The Northern Irish aspect of Brexit is complicated and it’s serious, which may be why it seems to make so many Leavers so cross and so convinced the whole issue is being flammed up as one of the many plots they see arrayed against them.
Yes, Boris, the tail is wagging the dog, because the alternative might involve cutting the tail off. And you signed up to keeping that dog alive and whole. Do the words “Conservative and Unionist Party” ring any bells? Fortunately, Theresa May knows those words, and appears to understand that her first duty as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is to avoid the dismemberment of that country. Sadly, Boris is preaching to the choir, and not for the first time. A depressing number of people don’t appear to give a fig about the Union.
Earlier this year, Alex Massie highlighted the most disturbing bit of polling I’ve seen for a long while. A survey for the Future of England project at Edinburgh University showed that 81 per cent of Leave voters felt the risk of the Irish peace process ‘unravelling’ was ‘worth it’ to get Brexit. For Conservative Leave voters the figure was 87 per cent. I truly hope those figures are wrong. Even if you overlook the trivial matter of terrorism (MI5’s assessment, by the way, is that “the threat to life posed by dissident republicans persists.”) there’s still an enormous question of civil politics here. Quite a lot of people in Northern Ireland say they don’t feel British. Hardly a historical surprise, but shouldn’t people nominally committed to preserving the union be doing things to *increase* support for that union? As it is, a quarter of the Northern Irish electorate say Brexit makes them more inclined to favour a united Ireland.
It seems implausible that senior members of the Cabinet showing complete disregard for Northern Ireland and its place in the Union has no bearing on that sentiment. Again, whatever merits you see in a policy, surely the fact that it might also hasten the end of the UK in its current form is surely something to address and mitigate, not vent frustration about?
I voted Remain, but remain lost so we have to leave. But accepting that doesn’t end the debate about the manner and consequences of our leaving. Yes, let’s respect the expressed will of the people of the United Kingdom and leave the EU. But not in a way that makes it more likely we end up losing an integral part of that kingdom. There are more important things in politics than your precious Brexit, Boris.