Bullying British demands over Irish border set to backfire and could help Ireland

The new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson swept into office with a fanfare of flowery patriotic speeches evoking the spirit of his hero Churchill…promising a do or die attitude that would strike terror into the hearts of the European Union, which would immediately crumble and give him the kind of cake and eat Brexit deal he promised in the referendum campaign three years.

In the real world, however, the picture looks very different. Across Europe, Johnson’s rhetoric is seen for what it really is: a lot of bluster designed to rally his support back home, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Johnson has become Prime Minister because of dissatisfaction with the way his predecessor Theresa May handled the negotiations for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.  She agreed that there should be a backstop arrangement covering the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which after Brexit will also be the UK’s border with the EU.

All sides agree that there should be no hard border as that would go against the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and could even lead to a resumption of the Troubles.

May agreed that if no other solution could be found to having customs checks without a hard border, the UK would stay largely aligned to EU regulations to avoid the need for any checks.

This infuriated Johnson and his supporters, who eventually forced May out of office.

Now Johnson has begun his premiership by demanding that the EU renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and ditch the backstop. This plays well with Brexit supporters but it means that Johnson has almost certainly overplayed his hand by making a demand the EU cannot accept.

Had he requested minor tweaks to the backstop, to ease the fears back in the UK, European leaders might have been tempted to co-operate. This could have put Ireland in a very difficult position, in which it wanted to oppose any changes but was put under pressure by other European leaders eager to secure a good trade deal with the UK.

By demanding that the backstop is ditched completely, Johnson has let Ireland off the hook and removed any potential pressure because now there is no issue to debate.

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The EU has made it clear that it will not remove the backstop and so therefore the question on Ireland making compromises doesn’t apply.

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Johnson was made aware of the EU position in no uncertain terms by both the President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

Junker told Johnson in a phone call that the backstop could not be removed. Barnier confirmed this position. In a leaked memo to European leaders he said: “Johnson has asserted that if an agreement is to be reached it goes by way of eliminating the backstop. This is of course is unacceptable and not within the mandate of the European Council.”

The stalemate is likely to last throughout the summer, but matters are likely to come to a head in the autumn as the UK is set to leave the EU on October 31.

Did you know?

‘The most dangerous woman in America’ – ‘Mother Jones’ was an Irish emigrant who fought for worker’s rights, believing that working men should be able to earn enough money from a hard day’s work to provide for their families. Her efforts landed her in court, where the prosecution labelled her the ‘most dangerous woman in America’. Find out more.