Preparations are underway for a crash Brexit after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed a scarcely believable set of proposals for the border through Ireland which appeared designed to be instantly rejected by Dublin and the European Union.
The proposals are intended to replace the existing ‘backstop’ guarantee, now formally abandoned by the British government in tandem with much of the the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The main suggestion is a ten-mile-wide border zone strafing throug the Irish countryside. This would be overseen by customs posts straddling both sides of the existing line of partition through Ireland, with the area between subject to constant customs and security patrols -- a remilitarised zone which would present a final and lethal blow to the 1998 peace deal.
Confirming a series of leaks earlier in the week, Johnson revealed his proposals at a starkly nationalistic Tory party conference on Thursday. He condemned the opposition at Westminster as “fratricidal Marxists” and their legislation to prevent Britain crashing out of the EU on 31 October without a deal as the “Surrender Bill”.
“Even though things have not been made easier by the Surrender Bill, we will work for a deal with our EU friends,” he said, “but whatever happens we must come out by the end of October. Let’s get this thing done – and then let’s get ready to make our case to the country.”
Among the promises for a hard Brexit was an astonishing vow to delegates to “end the free movement of people forever” by a madly grinning Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Patel, herself a daughter of Indian immigrants, previously suggested cutting food supplies to Ireland as a means of coercing the 26 County state into cooperating with the Tory agenda.
At a celebratory conference event organised by the DUP, unionists cheered on Johnson with shouts of “no surrender” and others that appeared to be death theats against the leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn.
The far-right Tory ‘war cabinet’ have continue to pursue an extreme Brexit by the current deadline of October 31 ‘by any means necessary’.
Despite being 40 seats short of a majority at Westminster, the Tories remain in power because the opposition have chosen not to call an election which could cause a crash Brexit to take place by default.
But with these latest proposals, the impasse has deepened and descended into a dangerous farce.
For those living in the area, Johnson’s plans recall how the border operated at the height of the conflict, when it was known as the most militarised frontier in western Europe. Instead of the hated spy-posts used for decades to monitor vehicular traffic over the border region, new ‘border force’ customs installations are to carry out the same task.
It would be only a matter of time before the return of British military checks and controls, blocked roads, smuggling, and an explosion of political tension in the area.
The ten-mile border zone, which includes major population centres such as Derry and Newry -- roughly 20% of the population of the Six Counties -- was openly described by Tories as a price worth paying for Brexit.
Ireland was referred to as “collateral damage” by Sky News journalist Adam Boulton. “No deal in this world happens without some pain for some people,” responded Tory Brexiteer James Gray.
A proposal that agriculture and health regulations remain continuous across the border was presented as a concession to the Irish. But this was coupled to another absurd idea: to hand the DUP a veto over border policy through a revived Stormont Assembly in Belfast, where it would come up for debate every four years.
The idea that Stormont would control whether the Six Counties falls out of regulatory alignment with the 26 Counties was denounced by Sinn Féin.
Party Deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said: “The bottom line is that there will never be a circumstance where the DUP will be afforded a veto over Brexit and over the future relationship on this island.”
A Sinn Fein spokesperson also described as “dangerous” an alternative suggestion which surfaced this week, to put the issue of border regulations to a public referendum in the Six Counties. That idea was also rejected by the DUP.
The immediate instinct of negotiators in Dublin and Brussels will have been to reject Johnson’s latest gambit out of hand, but they were reluctant to say as much.
The EU has said only it is “not a basis for concluding an agreement”, while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the plans “fall short in a number of aspects”.
A very broad range of political opinion in both parts of Ireland have said Johnson’s proposals are unworkable.
Manufacturing NI, which represents big business owners in the Six Counties, said the proposals would actually be worse than a crash Brexit, while the Ulster Farmers’ Union was also vehement in its opposition.
In Dublin, there was bafflement that the Tories and the DUP could speak about seeking “consent” while still advocating a Brexit which is now opposed by a clear majority on both islands, as well as in the Six Counties itself.
“Any consent mechanism and democracy mechanism must reflect the views of the majority of people in Ireland and Northern Ireland,” said the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
UNITY A SOLUTION
The Taoiseach listed five ways to avoid new border checks, and included Irish reunification as a possible approach. He said the options were a united Ireland; the 26 Counties coming under British rule; the cancellation of Brexit; Britain remaining in the customs union; or the existing ‘backstop’ guarantee.
“The best one is, of course, the backstop”, he said.
He also noted that polls since Johnson became Prime Minister suggest the British people want to abandon Brexit “but their political system isn’t able to give them that choice.”
But even the passing mention of a united Ireland was enough to provoke anger from the DUP, with East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson describing it as “incendiary language designed to unsettle unionists”.
Without irony, DUP leader Arlene Foster labelled the remarks “deeply unhelpful, obstructionist and intransigent”.
With indications that the authorities on both sides of the border are bracing for a sharp increase in conflict, PSNI police chief Simon Byrne indicated the British Army should be used to provide support for British border operations in the event of a hard Brexit, and not the PSNI.
“I have been clear.. it will not be the role of the PSNI to staff any form of border security,” he said. Byrne said he held a 30-minute conversation with Johnson by video call last Friday. He said he had “taken legal advice” to make sure that PSNI are “used for legitimate policing purposes”.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald described Britain’s latest Brexit proposals as “a very dangerous, reckless proposition” that plays “fast and loose” with the Good Friday Agreement.
“What we need on our island - north and south - is to ensure that there is no hard border, that our all-island economy is protected and that the Good Friday Agreement is defended,” she said.
“There is cross-community, cross-party political consensus on this matter across Ireland; with the exception of the DUP.
“It is ironic that Boris Johnson would depict his proposal as giving ‘renewable democratic consent’, given that no part of Ireland has consented to Brexit - the people of the north voted to remain.
“We have said all along that the Backstop - or any alternative to the Backstop - cannot be time limited in any way, yet this is what Boris Johnson now proposes.
“The proposal to give the Assembly the authority to decide either the type of arrangements that are put in place, or how long they will last, will afford the DUP a veto through abuse of the Petition of Concern procedure.
“Using the Petition of Concern or any other means of giving Unionism a veto is entirely unacceptable and is an abuse of the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Féin will never agree to this.”
Meanwhile, a very high stakes game continues to be played out in the British courts over a ruling that an extension to the Brexit deadline must be requested by Johnson, following the passage of legislation to that effect at Westminster.
Johnson’s lawyers claimed on Friday he would submit to the requirement to seek an extension by October 19, despite his supporters being told they would deploy other strategies to negate this and force a crash Brexit to take place regardless.
Commentators believe it all fits into a strategy to win the support of the ultra-nationalist wing of the Conservative Party and stave off the threat from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the general election, widely expected to take place at the end of November in any event.
If Britain falls out of the EU on October 31, Johnson could choose to style himself as the man who ‘got Brexit done’, or if not, as ‘the people’s champion’ struggling against an unpatriotic parliament.
One certainty is that Britain’s long and sordid history of bad faith negotiations with Ireland is continuing under the premiership of Boris Johnson: and once again, it appears that Ireland is set to suffer the consequences.