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Pressured by Biden, Johnson may finally face reality on Northern Ireland | Simon Jenkins

This week’s planned G7 chat on Northern Ireland between the US president, Joe Biden, and British prime minister, Boris Johnson, can be brief. Biden should tell Johnson to stop being an idiot and honour the protocol.

Everyone knows there can be no erecting of a border across the fields of Ireland. Johnson knew that when he campaigned for Brexit. He knew it when he decided to leave the single market. If he promised Northern Ireland’s unionists something else, he was lying. He should get busy preparing EU-compatible customs barriers in Belfast, as required by the protocol. Biden might add that Johnson can forget any US/UK trade deal if he refuses, not that any deal agreed by Congress is ever likely to be in Britain’s interest.

Johnson’s entire approach to the Northern Ireland protocol has been to procrastinate. The reason is plain. He cannot both sustain Brexit and honour his pledge to keep trade open across the Irish Sea. Ever since partition, it’s been the case that if Ireland and Britain were no longer to trade freely with each other, the north would have to remain in one Irish market.

There are various can-kicking proposals on the table. Johnson could sign a temporary adherence to the EU’s regulatory regime to allow time for more talks. Equally, the EU could stop being so fastidious about checks, especially those due to start this year on agricultural products. But both are just buying time, and either would kill any deal with US farmers.

Ultimately, there are only two options. One is that the protocol becomes permanent and Northern Ireland does indeed become part of an all-Ireland integrated economy. For that there are any number of sound arguments, which Johnson is probably too gutless to grasp. The other is that Britain extends the Northern Ireland deal to the whole of the UK. In effect, it signs itself up to EU regulatory standards across the whole range of goods covered by last year’s “no tariff” deal. In other words, Johnson eats humble pie and negotiates a return, not to the EU but to some version of Europe’s common economic area.

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We have learned much in the past year. Brexit is not a disaster but nor is it a bonanza. There are no “great deals” to be done with the rest of the world. There is no such thing as trade sovereignty. The EU remains Britain’s biggest trading partner and trade with it has not been freed of bureaucracy by Brexit, but swamped and damaged by it. The EU may be partly to blame, but it has never had an interest in making Brexit easy. The naivety of Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost knew no bounds.

Biden should tell Johnson to get the Northern Irish tail to wag the dog. End the absurd battle of wits with the EU. London has already signed up Northern Ireland to Europe’s trading standards regime. Now join it. This has nothing to do with Brexit but with commercial common sense. Britain can resolve the Northern Ireland impasse at a stroke, and in its own best interest, by negotiating a resumed close relationship with Europe’s single market.

Serious economists know this will happen one day. Northern Ireland might cease to be viewed by London as a “problem”, and become a solution.


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