Brexiteer Politicians Don't Get Why the Irish Border Is Important

We've spent too long indulging the fantasies of Westminster idiots.

by Sean O’Neill
06 March 2018, 3:43pm

(Stephen Barnes/Transport / Alamy Stock Photo)

If all political careers end in failure, it does not warrant thinking what kind of failure will finally end Boris Johnson's. Last week, asked whether his government wishes to reinstate border checks in Ireland after Brexit, Johnson replied, "There’s no border between Camden and Westminster, but when I was Mayor of London, we… took hundreds of millions of pounds from people travelling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks."

Alexander Boris de Pfeiffel Johnson was always likely to think himself eminently qualified for public life. Even then, it takes a special bravery to cite your time managing the congestion charges on Charing Cross Road to prove your worth at reconfiguring the UK's only land border with the EU, especially considering that border has been disputed – often violently – for the best part of a century.

The comments went down predictably poorly: Labour MP David Lammy joked about the "Troubles on the Caledonian Road and marching bands in Regent's Park". Border Communities Against Brexit, a campaign group based either side of the Irish border, deftly tweeted of Johnson, "YOU ARE AN IDIOT." It would be easy to read this as the reappearance of his travelling media circus and move on.

Yet, when Johnson treats the border with this lazy contempt, he speaks no longer as a maverick columnist or Mayor, but for a government. Johnson functions now as the reckless fifth member of an otherwise popular girlband: whichever repetitive slick is given to the operation, he can be trusted to wreck it and divulge some of its more gruesome inner workings.

Most Tory MPs would not write about those in Commonwealth countries as "flag-waving piccanninnies" with "watermelon smiles". But this government would, for instance, detain two women indefinitely and attempt to deport them to those same countries if they speak out on appalling conditions.

Johnson has a knack for giving a human face to the sentiments most of his peers dress up in the cold language of bureaucracy. His comments on the Irish border do the very same thing.

If this government’s approach to Ireland is defined by anything, it is by an ignorance as colossal as Johnson’s own. Painstaking hours have gone into figuring out what Brexit meant. Brexit was a rebellion of the post-industrial left-behinds; Brexit was a last-stand of the British in the world; it was "hard" or "soft" or "red, white and blue", it was any and none of these things. But no one wanted it to be an extensive rethink of Britain’s relationship with Ireland in peacetime.

Theresa May’s government is, however, forcing that rethink, saying – in contrast to Labour – that remaining in the customs union would be a "betrayal" of the vote. Leaving the customs union means hardening the Irish border in some way. The government, realising this, are moving to renege on their December commitment against a hard border. This is why, in a note leaked last week, Johnson declared that it is not the government’s job to ensure there is no border. It is also why Theresa May argued that if the EU forces a border on Ireland, it is not her fault.

The Camden comment was a classic idiocy, but it was also a quiet nod to the complicated technologies which, without a customs union, must be rolled out across the 310-mile border. Negotiations on Ireland were always going to be the hardest circle to square. It's only because of the boorish fantasies of Brexiteers – and a historical disregard for Irish affairs – that we imagined otherwise for so long.

Much worse will need to happen than Brexit to return Northern Ireland to violence; our communities have chosen a path to peace. This is little reassurance, however, from the hard facts of the situation: the government’s impact assessments show Northern Ireland stood to take the second-largest hit to GDP post-Brexit. The region's 56 percent Remain vote has been ignored for two years, highlighting the democratic deficit in devolution. Any hardening of the border beckons back to the living memory of an armed and policed border throughout the Troubles.

All of this happens at a time when various homegrown crises – from the struggle for reproductive and LGBT rights, to a fall-out over protections for the Irish language – have colluded to shut down the Northern Irish government indefinitely. The crises are piling up, and Westminster’s mishandling of the Irish border is only adding to them.

There is, in the end, an irony to the government’s border muddle. It was under the Conservative and Unionist Party that the border was first drawn a century ago. As negotiations drag on, little certainty in sight, but one thing is for sure: the Irish would be suffering another great injustice if Boris Johnson were to go over it with a thicker pen.