Boris Johnson likes to lie until a problem goes away – but Northern Ireland isn’t going anywhere

Tom Peck
·4-min read
<p>A hijacked bus burns on the Shankill Road as protests continue in Belfast on Wednesday </p> (Reuters)

A hijacked bus burns on the Shankill Road as protests continue in Belfast on Wednesday

(Reuters)

At the end of six straight nights of the worst violence Northern Ireland has witnessed in many years, the first thing to note is that Boris Johnson saw this coming.

The violence is partly a direct consequence of the terms of Brexit, which has required regulatory division between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, as it was always destined to do. And partly this division is being deployed as a pretext for criminal action, by criminal gangs who are looking for one.

Such things, of course, are not mutually exclusive. One does not absolve the other of responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

Boris Johnson has condemned the violence; of course he has. He has made the glib point that people who break the law bear responsibility for it. Which they do. But the certain proof of his own culpability comes from his own lies on the subject.

Before the general election in 2019, he thought nothing of, for example, telling a room full of Northern Irish business people that there would be “no additional checks” on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The government has actively denied the existence of such checks, even while putting in place the systems to make them happen.

If the consequences of this were not inevitable, and were not foreseen, there would have been no cause for Boris Johnson to lie about them, which he did.

Naturally, Brexiteers blame the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol, but three and a half long years of tortuous discussions did not yield a solution which satisfied their incompatible twin desires, of an open border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland and a hard border between the UK and everywhere else. They did not yield a solution because none exists.

Quite where the growing violence will lead is as baffling as it is pointless to predict. It was the question of Home Rule for Ireland that prompted Lord Salisbury to remark that too many political problems proceed on the misplaced assumption that there is a solution to be found. A hundred and thirty years later, he would appear to be vindicated.

Of course, for a short while, a solution did appear to have been found. The willingness on all sides to achieve peace (a willingness partly born not of high mindedness but necessity) manifested itself through the Good Friday Agreement, made possible through European single market membership on both sides of the border.

That solution is no longer possible. And though that is desperately unfortunate and was by no means inevitable or necessary, there can be no going back. It is now entirely legitimate for the UK government to claim that the Good Friday Agreement was sustained for as long as it was only by the people of the United Kingdom being kept in the European Union against their will.

So now the problem is ever more complex, the solution that, in 1998, took decades to find is no longer available. The job of finding a new solution will fall in large part to Boris Johnson. It is tricky to foresee what he might come up with.

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He spent the long, gruelling Brexit limbo years wafting away the problem with his traditional newspaper columnist schtick. While the actual foreign secretary, he liked nothing more than to claim how there would be no need for any kind of checks of physical infrastructure anywhere in Ireland deploying the example that, while mayor of London, the London Congestion Charge had created a infrastructure-less border around London, making checks on vehicles, extracting charges, and you’d never have known it was there. This was laughable, as he almost certainly knew.

His other contribution, as already discussed, was to just to lie the problem away. But it is not going away. It can’t be ignored, it can’t be talked down or demeaned, though he will certainly try.

There will need to be a solution to this, the predictable, predicted, inevitable and entirely foreseen problem. Boris Johnson has had all of the opportunities presented by five long years to offer any kind of solution to it. If he had one, one imagines we might have heard a whisper of it, as well as the usual lies and bluster.

He doesn’t, of course. And so, inevitably, other people will seek to force theirs, with the usual consequences.