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Good morning. Boris Johnson is in Northern Ireland today, and so are we (metaphorically). Beyond that, I am nursing a lot of resentment that my losing streak at Eurovision has entered its 16th year. I voted for Dutch entry S10’s ‘De Diepte’. Get in touch by tweeting me or emailing the address below.
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Words and actions
In yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, Boris Johnson has written a piece to mark his first visit to Northern Ireland since the elections earlier this month. (Or rather, someone else has written it and the prime minister has signed it off.)
There is a lot in it, and it’s worth reading in full. It sets out not only the UK government’s thinking on the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol but also on a host of issues standing in the way of a resumption of devolved government in Northern Ireland.
Policy-wise, the prime minister has committed the British government to legislating new provisions on the Irish language, and on abortion access in Northern Ireland. Equally importantly, the government will bring forward new proposals on how to tackle prosecution over historic offences. Here’s the crucial paragraph:
“These are different from those in our Command Paper last year. We have listened to many people in recent months and reflected on what we heard. Dealing with the past will still require difficult decisions but there will be no blanket amnesty. Immunity will only be available to those who co-operate and prosecutions could follow for those who do not.”
The devil is in the detail, but it is hard to see how a retreat from the UK’s recent approach will be enough for Conservative backbenchers, as British soldiers will, still, face investigation or at least the prospect of investigation. The rows over this particular policy still have a way to run.
Zero days since our last capitulation
The more immediate row is over the future operation of the NI protocol. In the coming days, Boris Johnson is expected to greenlight plans for a law to unilaterally scrap parts of the UK’s Brexit deal, despite warnings it could collapse talks with Brussels and spark a trade war with the EU.
Here’s the relevant section from Johnson’s article in the Belfast Telegraph:
“There is no disguising the fact that the delicate balance created in 1998 has been upset. One part of the political community in Northern Ireland feels like its aspirations and identity are threatened by the working of the Protocol.
And the Protocol involves other responsibilities which also need to be lived up to by all sides, including the commitment to protect the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions.”
This is the UK government’s argument for why it needs to unilaterally override parts of the NI protocol. The EU’s Brexit negotiator, Maroš Šefčovič, declined to say how Brussels would respond to any unilateral UK move but said it was “unacceptable for us” to change an international agreement that was less than two years old.
I don’t have all that much to add to what I wrote last week on this. UK ministers’ approach since leaving the EU has been pretty consistent since 2018 — it is to make a lot of noise and then capitulate on most issues. If the UK government wasn’t going to make good on its rhetoric over Article 16 before COP26, is it really going to risk the same with a much worse economy and while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens to completely redraw European security policy? (For more in this vein, I suggest reading Alan Beattie’s Trade Secrets, and for more Brexit analysis, check out the weekly newsletter from our public policy editor Peter Foster.)
Returning to Johnson’s Belfast Telegraph piece, I’d argue that the most important part is the final sentence:
In doing our part, we expect all elected representatives to get back to work and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
My read of that is that what the prime minister is saying is that the Democratic Unionist party shouldn’t wait for the UK’s diplomacy to make any changes to the NI protocol before getting back to governing Northern Ireland.
Further support for my thesis that Johnson will soften tack can be found over at the Sunday Times. Tim Shipman reports Downing Street is becoming alarmed that, having appointed Liz Truss as foreign secretary in the hope that she would avoid a trade war with the EU, she is instead increasing the prospect of one. He writes:
Yet after a week of sound and fury in which another confrontation with Brussels overshadowed the Queen’s Speech, and the mixed messages about it emanating from government, the tone of Johnson’s call with [Micheál] Martin was conciliatory. “The prime minister does not want a war with the EU,” a senior ally said.
I still don’t think we should expect the UK’s rhetoric on this to turn into concrete action — legislation may find its way to the statute book, but there is some distance between that and the UK actually acting to do anything differently in Northern Ireland.
Now try this
This weekend, I saw the film Everything Everywhere All At Once, a charmingly mad story about parallel universes. It was a pleasure to see it in a crowded cinema — the first time I’ve been in a packed cinema for something that wasn’t a Marvel movie since the lockdown.
And here’s a good listen: rising star Kemi Badenoch talks about why the label of uh, rising star is something of a curse, on Katy Ball’s ‘Women with Balls’ podcast from the Spectator.
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