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Why is Boris Johnson more worried about Scotland than Northern Ireland?

Campaigners for an independent Scotland hold a socially-distanced rally in September 2020 - Credit: Getty Images

While Indyref2 still looks the most likely end of the UK as we know it, and the SNP makes headlines, another constituent part’s fate is in the balance.

Compare the British government’s approach to Scotland and Northern Ireland as it attempts to address the chaotic consequences of Brexit.

The post-Brexit mood in both Scotland and Northern Ireland is febrile. In Scotland a majority of voters wanted to remain in the EU and now face a hard Brexit imposed from Westminster.

Northern Ireland struggles on many fronts following Boris Johnson’s decision to establish a border with Great Britain. Johnson claimed a negotiating triumph when the new border formed the essence of his Brexit Withdrawal Agreement in 2019.

He now huffs and puffs as if it was nothing to do with him. That border is the basis of the Northern Ireland protocol, an agreement that is leading to empty shelves in some shops and proving to be politically explosive.

The government’s response to the surge in support for independence in Scotland may be ineffective but is deadly serious. It has announced that part of the Cabinet Office is to be located in Glasgow.

The announcement was accompanied by briefings that the “engine room” of the British government would now be based in Scotland. At least 500 civil servant jobs will move to Glasgow by 2024.

An internal letter from the Cabinet Office said the move would “strengthen its commitment to Scotland” and that ministers would be expected to spend “some time” in Scotland.

Meanwhile government-supporting newspapers have gone out of their way to monster Nicola Sturgeon in their reporting of her involvement in the Alex Salmond saga. Here is the Daily Mail on a couple of opinion polls: “SNP meltdown as TWO polls find Scots would vote AGAINST independence and just a third believe Nicola Sturgeon has been honest in Alex Salmond row”.

Most parties would like to be in ‘meltdown’ if they were heading for yet another victory in a parliamentary election as the SNP appears to be this May. The frenzied onslaught reflects the near panic in parts of the government. Ministers know they cannot afford to lose Scotland and will pull every lever available to them in order to prevent the SNP from securing independence.

In theory they cannot afford to lose Northern Ireland either, but here they are being more laid back or complacent. Famously, when an aspiring leader, Johnson was invited to speak at the DUP’s annual conference. In his speech he pledged never to accept a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. On becoming prime minister that was precisely what he agreed to. 

Meeting business leaders in Belfast during the 2019 general election campaign he insisted there would be no additional paperwork required to facilitate trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Yet even then his deal suggested a mountain of paperwork would be necessary. So it has proved.

Johnson was either not telling the truth or did not realise the implications of his own deal, perhaps a combination of both. In order to make the Protocol more acceptable the government has threatened to break international law once and is being challenged legally now by the EU.

It is accused of breaking the law by unilaterally extending the ‘grace’ period that allows some more free flowing trade to and from Northern Ireland. Both the threat and the unilateral act have been widely regarded as threatening, rather than safeguarding, the peace process. The new US administration looks on warily. 

While Scotland gets the promise of a substantial ministerial presence in the years to come Northern Ireland got a quick visit from Boris Johnson last week. His main focus was a vaccine centre in Arlene Foster’s constituency, a public relations exercise that did nothing to address the problems arising from his Brexit deal.

During the visit Foster called on Johnson to ditch the Protocol. She overlooks a fundamental problem. The Protocol is a consequence of Johnson’s deal. The alternative was Theresa May’s deal, in which the UK remained in the customs union.

As I argued in The New European last month there are only two answers to the latest version of what was once known in a different context as the ‘Irish Question’. Either the UK joins the customs union, as Theresa May proposed, or there is a united Ireland.

The Protocol is an attempt to messily paper over some of the cracks. It is not an answer. The obstacles to trade are not “teething problems”. They are the unavoidable product of Johnson’s decision to opt for a hard Brexit. The problems will be constant.

A lorry passes by a billboard calling for “Irish Unity – the solution to Brexit” on the border between Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – Credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images

Johnson’s non-elected Brexit minister Lord ‘Frosty’ Frost plays his deluded machismo games but he will discover that such actions do not remove the obstacles from the Protocol. Indeed the Protocol is all about the need for obstacles.

His predecessor, Michael Gove, did not fail to address the issues because he was ‘softer’ in his approach compared with ‘Frosty’. Indeed Gove’s more appeasing tone helped the UK to escape near global condemnation when it threatened to break the law in relation to the Protocol towards the end of last year. Gove failed because there is no solution following the Brexit choices Johnson and ‘Frosty’’ have made over the last 18 months.

Johnson is a gambler.  On Brexit he has been playing a high risk game in which he improvises in the short term and hopes something might turn up in the longer term to address the consequences of his original moves.

As a result both Scotland and Northern Ireland stir. But perhaps subconsciously Johnson and his senior ministers seem ready to play even more dangerous games in Northern Ireland than in Scotland. 

In regards to Scotland they have a strategy of sorts which is to put the case for the Union at every opportunity and at this point at least to rule out the possibility of holding a referendum on independence.

Gove has gone as far as getting in touch with Gordon Brown to review the way ahead. If Scotland were to become independent under Johnson’s watch he would have to resign and would go down in history as the prime minister that broke up the union, an even more damning legacy than the one that defines David Cameron, a prime minister that accidentally took the UK out of the EU.

The Scottish Conservative party was once a strong force and under the brief leadership of Ruth Davidson made a fleeting recovery. The electoral challenges are not the same as in England but the terrain is familiar. 

Northern Ireland is different in every way. The electoral terrain is unrecognisable while the government has no strategy for addressing the post-Brexit turbulence beyond acting unilaterally in relation to the Protocol, triggering claims that it breaks the law.

The DUP calls for the Protocol to be scrapped, but if Johnson agreed to such a move that would raise once more the eternal question of where the border with the EU should be placed.

The Conservatives are formally known as the Conservative and Unionist Party, but currently they are more at ease when espousing forms of populist English nationalism.

Scotland’s future is stormily uncertain. Northern Ireland’s is even more so. No doubt in Number 10 there is a theoretical resolve to keep the entire UK intact but through their actions and policy decisions ministers seem far more concerned about losing Scotland than Northern Ireland.

What do you think? Have your say on this and more by emailing letters@theneweuropean.co.uk

Steve Richards’ latest book is The Prime Ministers  Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson