A former adviser to Tony Blair believes the British government will abandon Northern Ireland loyalists in order to get a good trade with the European Union.
Jonathan Powell was Blair’s Chief of Staff throughout his premiership and the chief British negotiator for the Good Friday Agreement.
He believes that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will end his government’s agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) if he wins a General Election in the autumn.
Currently, Johnson’s Conservative Party doesn’t have an overall majority in the House of Commons.
It means he has to rely on the support of the DUP to get government business through parliament. Even with that support, he only has a majority of one vote, making him vulnerable to the many rebels in his own party who oppose his Brexit strategy.
Like his predecessor Theresa May, Johnson has to solve the problem on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which will also be the border between the UK and the EU once Britain leaves.
The EU proposed having a border in the Irish Sea, so goods could undergo customs checks as they enter any part of Ireland, north or south. This approach would also mean that goods from Northern Ireland would have to be checked as they entered the UK.
This is unthinkable to the DUP as it would mean Northern Ireland being treated differently to the rest of the UK. They don’t want to do anything that could undermine the bond with Britain as it could lead to calls for a united Ireland.
Johnson has to accept the DUP position because he is dependent on their support. However, that could change if there was a General Election in the autumn.
Powell believes that if Johnson were to win an overall majority, he would abandon the DUP, accept customs checks between Northern Ireland and the UK so that he could proceed to do a trade deal with the EU, similar to the one just negotiated by Canada.
He told Marian Finucane show on RTE: “There would definitely have to be special measures for Northern Ireland in that case and there would definitely be a border down the Irish Sea.
“If he were to win to a majority, Boris Johnson has no particular fixed points and, yes, if he needed to abandon the DUP to get to a solution, so he could get to a Canada-style free trade agreement for the rest of Great Britain, then that is exactly what he will do.
“He is turning the Tory party into an English national party.
“They are not interested in Scotland, they are abandoning the Tory party in Scotland which has a very different position and they are focusing entirely on trying to win seats in England. If they get that, those are the interests they will protect.”
“The DUP has a relatively weak leadership under Arlene Foster.
“It is at least two parties. It is the party in Westminster and the party in Northern Ireland – they have two rather different interests.
“Someone like Sammy Wilson (the DUP Brexit spokesman) likes hanging out in the bars with the European Research Group, the right wing of the Tory party, and they are very much signed up for Brexit.
“Those who have to contest local Assembly elections in Northern Ireland…their support is more dubious about the virtues of a no-deal or hard Brexit.
“I think the DUP have a problem politically and they are very unlikely to back down on anything that undermines the union, but if it gets past that, they are in a more complicated position.”
The British House of Commons is currently in recess for the summer. When MPs return in September, Johnson may face a vote of No Confidence from opposition parties and Tory rebels who want to prevent the UK leaving without a deal. If that vote succeeds, it is highly likely that an election will be called so that Johnson can seek a fresh mandate.