20 October 2019
By Jonathan Powell
The obsession over the past few days with parliamentary manoeuvring has obscured the question of whether Boris Johnson’s Brexit agreement is a good deal or not and what its long-term consequences are.
Mr Johnson claims he has delivered a “great new deal” that everyone else said he couldn’t. In fact, it is neither great nor new. Mr Johnson switched from the scorched-earth approach advocated by Dominic Cummings, his principal adviser, to abruptly surrendering on nearly every point in order to meet his October 31 deadline. He has in essence ended up with Theresa May’s deal with some substantive changes on Northern Ireland we may all live to regret.
The prime minister says he has ditched the backstop. On the contrary he has accepted the substance of the original Northern Ireland-only backstop which Mrs May said, “no UK prime minister could ever accept”.
Moreover, he has changed it from being a fallback into the definitive future arrangement for Northern Ireland. He had to abandon his Heath Robinson-esque scheme of two borders, together with all the nonsense we have heard from Brexiters over the past three years about a magic technological answer to the border, and threw in for good measure Northern Ireland remaining in the EU for VAT purposes. Scarcely new, and hardly a triumph.
On consent, Mr Johnson rightly abandoned his initial proposal of giving the Democratic Unionist party a veto. But in the process he has driven a coach and horses through the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement by allowing a simple majority to decide whether the province stays in the single market and customs union. The system of cross-community agreement for major issues was built on the principle of “sufficient consensus” that requires a majority of both communities — nationalists and unionists — for a measure to be agreed, while ensuring a small minority could not block progress. Once you exempt one major issue from this rule, you risk undermining the very notion of power sharing enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.
The DUP may seem outlandish to people in London, but they represent real concerns in Northern Ireland which should be taken seriously. Tony Blair’s first visit outside London when he became prime minister in 1997 was to the Balmoral agricultural show outside Belfast. In a speech there he ad-libbed that he did not expect to see a united Ireland in his lifetime. The DUP worry that this is no longer true. If you introduce a hard border in the Irish Sea — a border that will grow wider over time as Great Britain diverges from the EU in terms of regulations and tariffs — then it will be harder for the unionists to maintain their Britishness. And we have removed the brake of cross-community agreement that would allow them to stop progress down that slippery slope. That is why we have heard worrying noises from loyalist groups like the Ulster Volunteer Force and why Arlene Foster has been meeting with the Ulster Defence Association.
The DUP may well be right in their fears. The poll numbers have already begun to move towards greater acceptance of a united Ireland during the Brexit process as Catholic voters who traditionally supported remaining in the UK drift to remaining in the EU. It seems likely, for demographic and other reasons, those numbers will continue to grow. Paradoxically Mr Johnson and Brexit may have done more for a united Ireland than the IRA ever did.
The fact that the Irish government and the EU have managed to prevent Mr Johnson’s proposed hard customs border in Northern Ireland, which would have posed a fundamental threat to the Good Friday Agreement, is welcome and enormously important. But the DUP have a strong case when they argue that he has instead undermined the other aspects of the agreement through his deal. That is the reason why they are supported by the more moderate Ulster Unionist party and even the cross-community Alliance party in this complaint.
The deal we have ended up with means a soft Brexit for Northern Ireland and a hard Brexit for the rest of the UK. In these circumstances it would be understandable if Scotland demanded the same treatment as Northern Ireland, since it had a similar majority for Remain in the referendum. When that is rejected by the Conservative government, and it refuses a further referendum, the support for independence will continue to grow.
This Trumpian “great new deal” will therefore not just take Britain out of the EU, but may also mark the end of the union, leaving a Little Englander government ruling a Little England.
The writer was Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1995-2007.
You can access the full article on the Financial Times website here.