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Opinion: Boris and his friends are living in a post-truth 'Alice and Brexitland'

Former ambassador Bobby McDonagh says Johnson’s team have used every excuse to cover their breach of international law, short of the PM eating his own homework.

Bobby McDonagh

BORIS JOHNSON’S DECISION to break international law by reneging on the Northern Ireland Brexit Protocol, which was negotiated, agreed and ratified by his Government, has done immense, possibly irreparable, damage to Britain’s reputation and influence.

One only has to imagine the laughter in Tehran at the recent insistence of UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, that Iran should respect its international commitments. The Chinese Government’s shameful propagandists on Hong Kong will be celebrating this gratuitous manna from heaven.

It is important therefore to ask “why on earth did Johnson do it?”. What could possibly be in it for him or for his country? Before considering what might be the real reasons, it is important to look at the series of threadbare excuses put forward by Johnson and his apologists. 

As a general rule, someone who offers several diverse explanations for their behaviour is both unconvincing and disingenuous. The British Government has proffered at least five separate excuses.

Johnson’s poker game

To start with the most ludicrous of the excuses, Johnson claims that the Withdrawal Agreement, so carefully designed and agreed by the EU and UK to protect the Northern Ireland peace process, must be repudiated in order to protect that process.

Those who drove the Brexit referendum in 2016, including Johnson, paid no heed whatever to the sensitivities of the Good Friday Agreement and dismissed all warnings including from the senior British politicians who made the Agreement possible. Former PMs Major and Blair have expressed outrage at the latest mendacity. 

Johnson’s continued lack of interest in, or empathy for, Northern Ireland was confirmed by his allegation in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph that the European Union has threatened to impose a blockade on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland. 

This entirely false statement, unrelated to the provisions of the draft legislation and designed to win over wavering Conservative backbenchers, was tone deaf, emotive and dangerous in the context of Northern Ireland.

The second excuse, also briefed by Johnson’s people to the media, was that he had known all along that the Northern Ireland Protocol would never work. Internal British briefing papers confirm that the UK Government knew exactly what was in the Protocol.

The British people should not hold their breath waiting for an apology for having been repeatedly assured during last December’s general election campaign that the Brexit deal was oven-ready and in Britain’s clear interests.

The third explanation, namely that the deal was rushed, entirely ignores the seriousness with which every country is obliged to approach the value of its word, the binding nature of its international treaties and the dignity of its sovereignty. 

‘Bad faith’

Fourthly, it has been suggested by some of those sent out to bat for Johnson that the UK is entitled to break international law because the EU is acting in bad faith, a claim that is not only false but also more than a bit rich in the circumstances.

This nebulous argument only has meaning in the Alice and Brexitland world in which every Humpty Dumpty can happily proclaim that “when I say a word, it means just what I choose it to mean”.  

Fifthly, it is argued that the British Government is, after all, acting legally. This risible claim is contradicted both by the resignation of the UK’s most senior legal official and, explicitly, by the Northern Ireland Secretary in the House of Commons.

Every excuse, short of Johnson eating his own homework, has been put forward. Since all of these can be dismissed, the intriguing question is what Johnson’s real motivation could have been in pursuing a policy that significantly damages the UK’s interests and standing. There seem to be four plausible explanations.

Ask yourself: why now?

First, those close to Johnson’s have apparently convinced him of the need to distract British public attention from his handling of the Covid-19 crisis, to which the strange driving patterns of his closest advisor made such a spectacular and indelible contribution.

The Leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, seems to interpret Johnson’s intentions in this way, as evidenced by his decision during recent Prime Minister’s questions to focus on Covid-19 rather than on the Government’s egregious law-breaking.

Second, one should not underestimate the role that creating disruption for its own sake – disruption of political norms, democratic institutions and international rules – plays in the populist, Trump-inspired Cummings game-plan.

Third, any insult to the EU, the more gratuitous the better, is red meat to the tame, fact-free parts of the media on which the Government is so heavily reliant. 

Finally, importantly, it is possible that the move was designed to provoke the EU into pulling out of the Brexit trade deal negotiations, thus providing London with a weapon in its long-strategised fall-back blame game.

This is a game which the UK Government has already lost comprehensively across Europe and around the world but for which some of the domestic battleground is still to play for.

The EU would be justified, by any reasonable standards, in walking away from discussions with a negotiating partner that has just demonstrated its disdain for a previous treaty on which the ink is not yet dry.

Fortunately, the European Commission, backed forcefully by all 27 European Governments, is too experienced to fall into that trap. The EU is cleverly treating the two strands of the negotiation separately.

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It is planning to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”. On the one hand, in the future trade negotiations, Michel Barnier is continuing to discuss calmly and in good faith, even with a partner that has not shown similar good faith.

On the other hand, in the Joint Committee on implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol, Commissioner Maros Sefcovic has made clear that the EU will under no circumstances accept the unilateral rewriting of the Protocol.  

A growing number of decent British politicians are still hoping to block the latest assault on British values. If they fail, the EU will ensure that the ball remains in Johnson’s court. His Government will deserve and bear the blame if the Brexit negotiations fail.

Bobby McDonagh is former Irish Ambassador to the EU, UK and Italy. He is an executive coach and commentator on subjects around EU and Brexit.

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