On 6 June 2022, it felt as though the world let out a collective sigh of relief as Boris Johnson finally resigned from his position as Prime Minister of Britain after just over three years in office. His departure was inevitable following an era plagued by the unlawful propogation of parliament over a potential ‘no-deal Brexit’, partygate (where he was fined just £50 for hosting a birthday party in May 2020 whilst the world was under strict Covid-19 restrictions), his defense of deputy chief whip Chris Pincher against sexual assault allegations dating as far back as 2019, and 57 ministerial resignations, including chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid. These numerous departures from his government were the final ignominious defeat of his term as prime minister and he was finally forced out.
However, as Johnson’s time in office draws to a close, the reality of his legacy is just beginning for the people in Northern Ireland. His handling of the Brexit negotiations, and particularly the Northern Ireland Protocol, has caused a period of utter chaos to descend on the North. In consequence, the precarious peace and stability granted by the Good Friday Agreement is threatened.
“It is widely acknowledged that there must never be a land border, hard or soft, on the island of Ireland”
As the dreary reality of Brexit began to manifest despite the North voting remain, we were relieved at the news emanating from the talks in Brussels of ‘special circumstances’ for the six counties. However, these discussions were not smooth sailing. It is widely acknowledged that there must never be a land border, hard or soft, on the island of Ireland. It inevitably would become a target for sectarian and state violence. Simultaneously, it is also undeniable that a checkpoint must exist for goods travelling from mainland Britain to the island of Ireland. Thus, the idea of the Irish Sea Border was conceived.
At first the Northern Ireland Protocol appeared to be a positive solution. The notion of placing the border in the sea removed our fears over placing a land border between the North and South of the island. There were promises that it would protect the UK internal market and further secure future trade between the North and South of Ireland. Johnson signed the Brexit Deal and accompanying NI Protocol. He chanted that he “got Brexit done”. Yet the issue was far from resolved.
Had Johnson and his government truly understood the reality of the Northern Irish political climate, they would have foreseen the inescapable ideological clash between Unionists and Nationalists over the Brexit Deal, and its further exacerbation by our general election in May 2022. The result witnessed the DUP lose their positions as the largest party and First Minister to Sinn Féin. In response, the DUP has refused to nominate a Deputy First Minister. Their leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has remained firm in his conviction to block the formation of the Northern Ireland Assembly until their grievances over the Protocol are resolved.
This is unabashedly shameful behaviour from the DUP. Despite the people in the North voting to remain part of the European Union (55.8%), their democratic decision was ignored by the DUP who backed the idea of a hard Brexit for the North. This was a reckless gamble with the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and peace in the North.
Of course, Boris Johnson cannot be held solely responsible for the actions of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP in their refusal to form a government due to their vehement opposition to the NI Protocol, but he can be held responsible for consistently supporting them privately, which First Minister Michelle O’Neill has alleged, and within the media.
Unsurprisingly, he also appears to have backtracked in recent interviews, and has accepted issues with the technicalities of the Protocol, admitting he didn’t anticipate the EU enforcing their regulations as strictly as they had promised. However, in May 2022 following the historic election in the North, Johnson insisted, without giving any specificities, that the issues with the Protocol would be settled and that they were “not a big deal”.
“The Northern devolved government has functioned for only two of the last five years. This cannot continue”
“Not a big deal?” This is the greatest blow to the Northern people. During a cost of living crisis, a healthcare crisis and fears of an impending trade war between Britain and the EU, the DUP is holding the Stormont Assembly hostage, refusing to honour the results of a democratic election and leaving the people in the North with no functioning executive. The Northern devolved government has functioned for only two of the last five years. This cannot continue.
Moreover, peace in the North is more precarious than it has been in 20 years. Since the issue of the NI Protocol has been at the forefront of our politics, there have been significant periods of civil unrest and rioting over the Irish Sea Border. From March to April 2021, weeks of intense rioting in Derry and Belfast ended with multiple arrests, injuries to police and citizens, burnt vehicles and hijacked cars. This is the reaction of the people in the North to a situation which the Prime Minister referred to as “not a big deal”. As a young woman from Belfast, born just one year after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the thought of my home descending back into the violent norms of the past is unthinkable, and the government has a duty to ensure this type of violence and sectarian hatred never becomes our reality again.
“Their attitudes towards the North and plans for the Protocol appear to follow the typical conservative apathy for our affairs”
Therefore, it is evident that Johnson was not the person for the job. As the race to Downing Street draws to a close, Tory party members will vote Monday 5 September 2022, to decide between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to replace Johnson. Their attitudes towards the North and plans for the Protocol appear to follow the typical conservative apathy for our affairs.
At the recent hustings event in Belfast, both Sunak and Truss made very clear from their standpoint that the NI Protocol isn’t working as it should, and have made vague promises to fix it, without outlining any solid plans of how they will do it. Both candidates have stated their determination to see the Stormont Executive up and running as soon as possible, a determination that is welcome. It remains to be seen.
In the most recent polls, Truss looks likely to become the next Prime Minister, as she boasted a 32 point lead. Yet in May of this year, as foreign secretary, Liz Truss was accused of introducing legislation that would breach international law, as she outlined government plans to make amendments to change the NI Protocol as it currently stands but has denied eradicating it entirely.
All things considered, it is evident that whoever is to be elected as the new Conservative Party leader and 56th Prime Minister of Britain has an unfinished job on their hands when it comes to the Protocol. In a contested part of the island where power-sharing is expected from two communities with different values, beliefs, ideologies and goals, history has taught us that consensus is rare, compromise is even rarer and bitter intransigence is the bread and butter of our politics. It is difficult to be optimistic in times like this, but I bid goodluck to the new Prime Minister, for all our sakes.