There is a growing belief that the Tory government in London is manipulating Brexit tensions for electoral purposes, regardless of the mounting political crisis in the north of Ireland.
Despite major concessions by the European Union this week, Tory efforts to open ‘new fronts’ on the Irish Protocol of Brexit have revealed an agenda that are designed to generate jingoistic anti-European or anti-Irish sentiment among the British public.
A major move by the EU to concede to unionist demands for the elimination of checks at ports in the north of Ireland has been rebuffed with the Tory introduction of new “red lines”.
Amid reports that several EU states are now making contingency plans for retaliations, including a full trade war, the British government was accused of “casual political vandalism” in regard to the north of Ireland by former Downing Street Chief of Staff Jonathon Powell.
EU’s Brexit negotiator Maroš Šefčovič said on Wednesday he was ready to drop the requirement for checks on food and other products being sent from Britain to Ireland, ending the so-called ‘sausage war’.
The sweeping measures are intended to appease unionists and loyalists who have continued to demand the reintroduction of British military checkpoints along the border through Ireland instead.
The signalled concessions by the European Commission were dismissed, however, and new issues brought up as obstacles. Previously resolved matters such as the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and measures to prevent the transmission of diseases via household pets, were both flagged as new excuses for avoiding a deal.
While Boris Johnson entertained himself at a billionaire’s mansion in the south of Spain, his Brexit Minister David Frost spun the new agenda to the Tory media, lashing out at European laws and “the system of which the court (ECJ) is the apex”.
The Daily Telegraph, Johnson’s former employer, also warned of a new “ferret war” with the EU. It was another sucker-punch attack, this time on the pet travel scheme in which the north of Ireland is still included in the all-island public health effort against diseases such as rabies.
For the Tories and ultra-right, it marked a welcome return to the comfortable anti-EU rhetoric which has seen them campaign for decades on flag-waving issues such as the shape of bananas, the colour of passports and the imperial system of units.
Orchestrated to deflect the voting public from the failure of his Brexit and Covid-19 policies, Johnson now appears willing to put his poll ratings above the peace process in the north of Ireland.
Increasing Crown Force attacks on Irish republicans are also being seen in terms of a well planned u-turn on a hard Brexit. Several political groups and parties have endured arrest operations and state-directed censorship, mostly in the border city of Derry where new British border checkpoints would likely face the most intense resistance.
Very revealing this week were tweets by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, who said a plan was hatched by the Tories since early last year to “ditch the bits (of Brexit) we didn’t like”, even if that meant breaking international treaties such as the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement or the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
He wrote that the London government is allowed to “sometimes break deals… like every other state does”. Irish Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was forced to respond with a warning that the British government had “acted in bad faith”.
Varadkar, who negotiated the Protocol with Johnson in October 2019, said the statements confirmed the fact that London could not be trusted: “That message needs to be heard around the world, because if the British government doesn’t honour its agreements, doesn’t adhere to treaties it signs, that must apply to everyone else too.”
The 26 Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney noted that each time that the European Union comes forward with new proposals over the Protocol, “they are dismissed by the UK” before they are even published.
“This has been the position all year, each time that the European Union comes forward with new ideas, new proposals to try to solve problems, they’re dismissed before they’re released and that’s happening again this week, but this week it’s even more serious.”
Even former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who defended Britain’s failure to implement talks deals throughout the peace process, hit out at the tactics of the British negotiating team as “deplorable”.
The EU was trying to find solutions to the situation while it looked like “the representative from the UK was out to do everything to make life almost impossible,” Mr Ahern said.
For Sinn Féin supporters, the shifting British goalposts recalled some of the worst days of the peace process negotiations.
The party’s leader at Stormont, Michelle O’Neill described the British behaviour as “duplicitous and disgraceful and an effort to break yet another international agreement”.
“The attempts by the Tories and the DUP to undermine the protections and opportunities of the Protocol and impose a hard border must be opposed,” she said.
Party spokesperson Declan Kearney questioned whether the London government was throwing a ‘dead cat’ on the table because the EU had ‘called their bluff’.
There were aso concerns in the US that the Tory double-dealing could have serious repercussions for the peace process. Congressman Richard Neal, Co-Chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Friends of Ireland Caucus, said he was surprised by the “much harder line” taken by the London government “when goodwill ought to be able to break the logjam.”
He said that the north of Ireland “should not be held hostage” by the Brexit fallout.
And renowned film producer David Puttnam announced his resgination from the Westminster parliament’s House of Lords in protest at what he described as the “shocking” level of understanding of Irish issues.
Mr Puttnam, who has lived in West Cork since 1998, said he watched Conservative ministers “malevolently twist, turn and posture in parading their prejudices” during the Brexit debates.
“In discussions regarding the Republic of Ireland, and the complexity of finding sustainable post-Brexit solutions, I was staggered at the display of pig-ignorance towards the fundamentals of Irish history, let alone sensitivity towards the reality of cross-border relationships,” he said.
“As someone who lives just across the Ilen River from the site of what is probably the largest and most recent mass famine-grave on these islands, I may well be ultra-sensitive to these issues, but with a few notable exceptions, the level of empathy and understanding on display in both Houses was truly shocking.”