The first time I met Boris Johnson, I was a junior political reporter at the Daily Telegraph and he was a senior columnist. He came into the newspaper’s tiny office in the House of Commons, plonked himself down at the desk next to mine and declared that he was writing about Northern Ireland. “Remind me,” he said, “which ones are the orange johnnies?”
I assumed it was another example of the faux-naïveté that he always used to extract as much information as possible from those around him, which he could then use to his advantage, while giving nothing back (he deployed the same approach to buying rounds of drinks, or cups of tea). Perhaps it was. I find it hard to believe that the man who is now prime minister shared the ignorance of the former Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley, who confessed soon after getting the job that she had only just learned that “nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa.”
But that same insouciance about the delicate balance of power and the fragile peace in Northern Ireland has now contributed to riots on the streets of Belfast, with teenagers throwing petrol bombs amid burning cars, in a terrifying return to the violence of the past.
Of course the ominous scenes are not the prime minister’s fault alone. The loyalist areas that have been in flames are among the most deprived in the country, with the lowest level of educational attainment in Europe. There has long been simmering anger in these communities at politicians’ neglect, which was further stoked by the decision not to prosecute republican leaders who attended a large funeral for a senior IRA commander, in breach of coronavirus restrictions.
The backdrop, though, is the Brexit deal, for which Johnson must take responsibility. The prime minister was careless with the facts and too willing to gloss over the complexities of Northern Ireland in his rush to “get Brexit done.” He applied a reckless “have your cake and eat it” approach to an area where the cake had already been painstakingly shared.
There was always going to have to be a border somewhere if the UK left the single market and the customs union. One side would be disappointed. But Johnson pretended that this was not the case. As Jonathan Powell, who helped deliver the Good Friday Agreement 23 years ago, put it at the weekend: he “opted to put the border in the Irish Sea, then chose to lie about it, live on TV, saying there would be no border and that no one would have to fill out any forms.”
Now political reality is reasserting itself, with devastating consequences. The Times cartoonist Peter Brookes depicted the situation brilliantly last week with a drawing of a burning Vote Leave bus, emblazoned with the slogan “No border in the Irish Sea.” The irresponsibility is astonishing, and it is not as if the prime minister was not warned.
During the 2016 EU referendum campaign, Tony Blair and John Major travelled to Northern Ireland to raise concerns about the risks to peace from a Brexit vote. They also suggested that a Leave result would “jeopardise the unity” of the UK, which has turned out to be rather prescient as well.
A report published last June by the House of Lords EU committee laid bare the dangers inherent in the Northern Ireland Protocol. “The combination of uncertainty, lack of momentum and lack of time, compounded by the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic, is a potent threat to economic prosperity and political stability in Northern Ireland,” it said.
Donald Rumsfeld liked to talk of “unknown unknowns” in global affairs. But the risk of renewed violence in Northern Ireland was, as Peter Ricketts, the former head of the foreign office and member of the Lords committee, puts it, very much a “known known.” “A lot of the problems were foreseen, underlined and drawn to people’s attention,” he tells me.
The prime minister did not seek to head these dangers off last year, and he is still not taking sufficient notice. Tom Fletcher, the former diplomat who covered Northern Ireland in Downing Street for four years, tweeted last week that: “There were moments when PM had to rip up grid, cancel break, let people down, stay up late, hit phones, spend, flatter, arm twist and do nothing else for week. This is one.” Yet it took Johnson days to issue even a Twitter response to the violence. Number 10 has still not agreed to a crisis summit with Dublin. Instead Downing Street has harmed relations with the Irish government with its threats to break international law over the deal with the EU.
David Gauke, the former Conservative Cabinet minister, says: “The risks to peace in Northern Ireland of a hard Brexit were clear to anyone who understood the issue prior to the referendum and during the Brexit negotiations. But at no point did Boris Johnson properly engage in the issue until, as prime minister, he agreed to a border in the Irish Sea. Even then he refused to admit to the nature of the deal to which he agreed.” He thinks Johnson is about to be found out. “A hard Brexit requires either a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic or in the Irish Sea. Ignoring this reality has been crucial to Boris Johnson’s political success but it is a position that has run out of road.”
The prime minister’s negligence was always going to be exposed in some way, but there is no place more dangerous for this to happen than Northern Ireland. In his diaries, out this week, Alan Duncan, the former foreign office minister, describes Johnson as “an international stain on our reputation, a selfish, ill-disciplined, shambolic, shameless clot.” This from the man who was his deputy for two years. When I asked Duncan recently what he thought motivated the prime minister, he replied: “the limelight,” rather than any clear set of ideas. It is remarkable that the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party is neither a conservative nor a unionist. He is, in the words of one former cabinet minister, a “Borisonion,” which is why he is so careless of others. The tragic consequences of that carelessness are now playing out.