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Boris Johnson’s hypocrisy on the Northern Ireland protocol is a new low

Recent political posturing isn’t about peace – it’s about the selfish aims of the PM and the DUP

Emma DeSouza
Emma DeSouza
15 June 2022, 12.00am

Boris Johnson is suddenly very bothered by consent, but ignores that the majority in Northern Ireland didn't consent to Brexit

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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Boris Johnson has never seemed very bothered by the wishes of those in Northern Ireland.

The prime minister pushed through a Brexit deal that the majority in Northern Ireland opposed and has been keen to cosy up a Democratic Unionist Party that won just over a fifth of the votes in May’s Northern Irish election.

But now Johnson – and his allies in the DUP – can’t stop talking about one word: ‘consent’.

When British government ministers tabled legislation to unilaterally disapply several key sections of the Northern Ireland protocol, they said they were defending the principle of consent, a key strand of Northern Irish political discourse stretching back to the peace process.

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Johnson and the DUP claim the lack of unionist consent for the customs border that the protocol created in the Irish sea – which means goods exported from Great Britain to Northern Ireland face checks – poses a serious threat to the Good Friday Agreement. (This is the same peace agreement that the DUP opposed, incidentally).

But the objective here is not to protect the agreement – it’s to undermine it. 

Both the Tories and the DUP have been mortally wounded by the results of their own short-sighted actions

Both the DUP and the government overlook the absence of consent for Brexit itself in Northern Ireland, as well as the fact that a recent survey by Queen’s University found majority support for the post-Brexit arrangements and that the Northern Irish electorate has also just returned a pro-protocol majority to Stormont.

Business leaders and representative bodies have also become increasingly critical of the plans in the days leading up to yesterday’s publication of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.

NI’s Dairy Council, Manufacturing NI, the NI Meat Exporters Association and more have said the protocol is working. They say the UK’s proposals – particularly the dual regulatory scheme, which will see businesses in Northern Ireland given the choice of following UK or EU rules – would be devastating for their industries.

But the British government claims its action is necessary to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly and North-South Ministerial Council. It omits that both institutions are down not because of the Northern Ireland protocol, but because of the DUP – which has spent the past near-quarter century actively blocking the progression of many of the GFA’s provisions.

Of course, none of the political posturing on display is about consent, or peace. It’s about the selfish political aims of the Tory party and the DUP, both of which have been mortally wounded by the results of their own short-sighted actions.

A worrying precedent

The government, along with the DUP, has successfully reframed the application of cross-community consent in the discourse around the post-Brexit arrangements. It has seeded the narrative that this is required for the functional operation of the protocol.

But consent under the GFA, as well as the Northern Ireland Act 1998, is not required in this case – in fact, the consent mechanism in the GFA applies solely to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. This has been legally tested twice since the Brexit referendum, with the Supreme Court ruling that consent applies only in the event of a border poll.

Cross-community support, which is what the DUP and Boris Johnson are relying on, applies in limited circumstances, such as the election of the first minister and deputy first minister. Normal majorities suffice elsewhere unless a petition of concern is raised.

What’s more, during the Brexit negotiations, the DUP roundly rejected the idea of Northern Ireland having some form of consent at every possible opportunity. This conviction conveniently buckled when the NI protocol came to fruition – at which point, the party sought to champion the concept of consent.

The DUP initially argued for the extension of cross-community voting to the international agreement. This was, in essence, an attempt to establish a unionist veto over the Northern Ireland protocol. Consent, it seems, is required only when it suits one’s own political objectives.

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The legality of the protocol legislation will be debated in the weeks and months ahead, but the inclusion of a clause that gives sweeping powers to ministers to disapply any provision of the GFA will cause particular concern.

This clause could allow the UK government to override the Northern Irish Assembly’s scheduled vote on whether to retain the protocol in 2024 – though Downing Street has insisted it would not be used to do so.

But more worrying still, it could set a precedent that further distorts the application of cross-community consent. If such a prerequisite were placed on a border poll, for example, which is outlined in the GFA as requiring a simple majority, the likelihood of a United Ireland would become null and void.

The GFA is an international peace agreement. That it is being used as an excuse to breach another international agreement is nothing short of shameless. Peace is not a bargaining chip. Johnson and his allies will continue to use ‘consent’ as their rationale, but make no mistake, their actions do not have consent in Northern Ireland.

The British government will claim its new bill operates within international law, but it remains a basic rule of law that a country cannot unilaterally use domestic legislation to write its way out of an international agreement.

Whether the bill will be passed by the British parliament remains to be seen, but the damage of its impact on the peace process, on economic growth, on British-Irish relations, and on the UK’s international reputation will already have been done.

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