Brexit: Boris Johnson's approach to Northern Ireland sums up the degradation of politics – Brian Wilson

Watching this week’s BBC2 programme on the early days of Tony Blair’s premiership was to be reminded of the power for good that lies in the hands of politicians when they care enough to use it.
Who will ever again trust a treaty negotiated by David Frost and Boris Johnson? (Picture: Leon Neal/pool/AFP via Getty Images)Who will ever again trust a treaty negotiated by David Frost and Boris Johnson? (Picture: Leon Neal/pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Who will ever again trust a treaty negotiated by David Frost and Boris Johnson? (Picture: Leon Neal/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

The focus was on Blair’s messianic commitment to unlocking a peace deal for Northern Ireland. In the face of all warnings of impossibility, he stuck with the task, abetted by Mo Mowlam as the Secretary of State with a human touch.

It is easily forgotten the risks Blair took in doing business with people who had a great deal of blood on their hands. When he arrived in Belfast for the final round of talks, 87 per cent of the local population believed they would fail. Three days later, the Good Friday Agreement emerged.

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The deal was not perfect and neither have been the outcomes. But overwhelmingly the most significant point was made by Tom Kelly, then head of communications in the Northern Ireland Office, who said peace was only secured because Blair “kept it, kept at it and kept at it” and forced others to do the same.

“That,” he said, “is why 20 years after the Agreement, the framework it established – despite all the difficulties – is still there and it is why my children grew up in a world I didn’t know.” It was a powerful testimony.

Fast forward several Prime Ministers and consider what is happening now in Northern Ireland. Everyone with an ounce of humanity hopes and prays that peace is sufficiently embedded to avoid a return to past horrors. But the reckless willingness to gamble with that risk is morally degraded.

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Hearken unto Ian Paisley Jnr, a DUP MP and bearer of a powerful name. According to Paisley: “Boris Johnson did tell me personally that he would, after agreeing to the protocol, he would sign up to changing that protocol and indeed tearing it up, that this was just for the semantics.” It may be an incoherent sentence but the meaning is clear.

It is in line with the boast from Dominic Cummings that Tory strategy was to sign a Brexit deal, win a general election on the back of it and then “ditch” the bits they didn’t like – including the Northern Ireland Protocol which, according to Cummings, Johnson “never read” far less understood.

That is how much the Conservative and Unionist Party cared about the implications for Northern Ireland – sign a treaty in bad faith, win an election, then deny the validity of the treaty. And for good measure, claim to do so in order to preserve peace in Northern Ireland. It is politics of the deepest cynicism and lowest order.

I remember writing in the early Brexit days that Northern Ireland was bound to be the tail that wagged the dog because the starting point must be that there could be no hard border within the island of Ireland, while Unionists would never accept a border in the Irish Sea. Therefore, a customs union covering the whole UK-EU relationship was inevitable. How naïve I was.

Theresa May’s premiership foundered on the rock of honest efforts to resolve that enigma. They were frustrated by a motley alliance of hard-line Tories, manoeuvring to get Johnson installed, supported in the division lobbies by deluded Labour and cynical SNP MPs pretending they were somehow going to blow Brexit away. Instead, they blew Johnson into power – exactly as he had calculated.

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None of them gave a toss for Northern Ireland or that hard-won peace which were merely pawns in their games. Now we have David Frost, an undistinguished former director-general of the Scotch Whisky Association and long-time Johnson crony, talking about “our fundamental responsibility to safeguard peace and prosperity” in Northern Ireland – by reneging on every word of the protocol.

The hypocrisy is shameless while responsibility extends to every MP who, by his or her actions – often in direct contradiction of words – put destructive power into the hands of Johnson, Frost and their fellow villains. Who will ever again trust a treaty they sign – and why on Earth should they?

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