Will Boris Johnson eventually agree to a Northern Ireland-only backstop against the wished of the Democratic Unionist Party?
It has been a hackneyed staple in the office of ambitious junior managers for years; the inspirational poster stating that “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.”
Given the events of the past week, someone needs to get Prime Minister Johnson a copy of that poster.
Prime Minister Johnson’s crisis is manifest. The “mother of parliaments” has been unprecedently suspended. Johnson has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor Theresa May in suffering a string of stinging legislative defeats. His party has lost its majority through a series of high-profile defections including his own brother.
The opposition is calling for a third extension to the Brexit deadline (without clearly articulating how extension three would be different from the previous two); Prime Minister Johnson has responded: “he would rather be dead in a ditch.”
The root cause of the crisis is the “Irish Backstop.” Under the “backstop,” the entire United Kingdom would remain in regulatory alignment with the E.U. until a means is found for Britain to deliver Brexit without checkpoints along its only E.U. land border in Ireland.
Since the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland border only exists on maps, and its absence has resulted in two decades of previously unimagined peace and prosperity between the communities of Ireland. Put simply, a return to a physical border would also be a return to the mentality of “us” and “them” and an invitation to conflict.
The flaw of the Irish Backstop is its scope; in covering all of the United Kingdom opponents with justification have labeled the withdrawal agreement “Brexit without Brexit.”
Fear that the entire United Kingdom would be indefinitely trapped in a backstop limbo and unable to pursue independent trade deals lead to Prime Minister May suffering the worst defeat in the history of Parliament and her eventual ouster.
That same fear continues to paralyze Prime Minister Johnson’s parliament.
This was not the original plan. May and the E.U. had initially agreed to a backstop that was limited to only Northern Ireland. The “Northern Ireland Only Backstop” would have respected the will of the people of Northern Ireland who rejected Brexit by 56% at the polls, avoid a peace threatening hard border in Ireland, and allow Britain to be free of E.U. regulation and pursue its trade deals.
It gave Brexit to Britain and mitigated its consequences in Ireland. It was the epitome of Johnson's "Pro-cake and pro-eating it too" desires.
However, the common sense of the "Northern Ireland Only Backstop" lost to the special interests of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and May’s need of ten DUP seats to maintain her party’s majority in parliament; a majority that in retrospect achieved her nothing.
The DUP view any divergence between Britain and Northern Ireland (except the many divergences of their own making) as an existential threat to Union.
Ironically, part of the Brexit playbook calls for the establishment of “freeports;” no one to date has expressed a similar concern that regulatory divergence in Southampton or Tilbury is going to cause the collapse of the Union and the ravens to flee the Tower of London.
To placate the DUP, the backstop was therefore massively and unmanageably expanded to the entire UK; dooming any chance of Brexit passing parliament. The DUP has achieved one goal; since rejecting the "Northern Ireland Only Backstop" all of Britain has been in a union of chaos.
Like the Chinese pictograph, the crisis of the past week has indeed given Prime Minister Johnson an opportunity. In losing his parties majority, he has unintentionally unshackled himself from being constrained by the DUP and their narrow agenda; allowing him the freedom to put the only sensible plan for Brexit, “a Northern Ireland Backstop” back on the table.
What does it matter now if you lose the DUP’s Sammy Wilson when you have already lost the support of your brother and Winston Churchill’s grandson?
Catering to the DUP agenda to maintain an ineffectual majority has failed, continuing now to be constrained by their narrow parochial agenda is madness.
Johnson has an opportunity for the type of Churchillian moment he so desperately craves. Johnson can continue to the cycle of failure in pursuing the “all U.K. backstop” or going to Brussels to be rebuffed again in demanding the backstop be eliminated.
Alternatively, Johnson can seize the moment to grasp - nettles and all - the opportunity to pursue the only path to Brexit possible and put Special Status for Northern Ireland back on the table.
If he instead chooses to crash out of the E.U. without exploring every option to preserve an open border and the peace of the Good Friday Agreement he can certainly expect tough questions when it comes to a U.S. trade deal.
There is an opportunity in this crisis for a new direction on Brexit; the question is does Johnson have the courage and resolve to take it?
What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments section, below.
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