When Boris Johnson visited Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, in Dublin last month as part of a last-minute scramble to reach some sort Brexit deal, the two leaders began their day with a media briefing on the steps of one of Dublin’s grandest buildings.
In the Edwardian Baroque style, it was built by the British authorities while the Irish were intensifying their struggle for independence. Johnson, shirt askew, hair a mess, shambled to the podium and gripped it. Varadkar looked on, gym fit and poised in a sharp suit.
The contrast was more than superficial. Britain has long since lost its empire — and this prime minister looks set to break up the United Kingdom itself. He had come to Dublin for talks about the vexed issue of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is still a part of the United Kingdom.
Johnson needed either to bully Ireland into abandoning the so-called backstop, which protects the Good Friday Agreement and the European Union’s single market, or to make Ireland look so intransigent that it could be blamed for pushing Britain into a no-deal Brexit.
Varadkar delivered a telling speech. He compared the tasks facing Johnson, who must negotiate the future of a Britain outside of the European Union, with the labours of Hercules. Ireland wished to be Britain’s “friend and ally, your Athena,” Varadkar said.
It was an elegantly delivered speech. Hercules’s labours were penitential — prone to fits of madness and having killed his family, he was about to continue on a murderous rampage when Athena, deity of wisdom, saved him from his own folly by knocking him unconscious.
British prime ministers are not used to coming to Ireland cap in hand, and Johnson left Ireland having achieved nothing. Not long after leaving Dublin, Johnson flew off to New York, where he maundered on about Prometheus at the United Nations Summit on Climate Change.
While he was there, the British Supreme Court ruled that his suspension of Parliament last month had been illegal, and that he misled the Queen. Since he swaggered into office just over two months ago, Johnson has lost every vote. He no longer has a majority and his own party is in open rebellion. His attempt to bulldoze through a no-deal exit has so far been thwarted by legislators, who passed a law against it. Nonetheless, he flew back from the United States in full Hulk mode, aggressive and entirely unapologetic.
Divide and conquer
Johnson has tried to use the old British imperial tactic of “divide and conquer,” traipsing around Europe trying to find someone who will break ranks and blame the Irish for the impasse. Instead, the other 27 nations have bonded in solidarity with Ireland and have spoken as one of the need to uphold the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Ireland by, in part, avoiding a hard border. Today, when Varadkar says “we,” he means we, the European Union.
After months of prevarication and bluster, Johnson this week presented the European Union with a set of insolently half-baked proposals, describing the question of the border as “essentially a technical discussion.” Johnson sent an aide to Dublin to brief the Irish government on the plan in advance.
“The meeting did not go as well as expected,” according to the Times. Dublin and Brussels were united in expressing both dismay and disappointment. In Northern Ireland, only the Democratic Unionist party, which props up the beleaguered British government, welcomed the plan.
Since he swaggered into office just over two months ago, Johnson has lost every vote. He no longer has a majority and his own party is in open rebellion. His attempt to bulldoze through a no-deal exit has so far been thwarted by legislators, who passed a law against it
Brexit is bad for Ireland, north and south, and a chaotic no-deal one is nightmarish. (Note: The UK government’s final Brexit proposals include customs checks on the island of Ireland)
Those who promoted Brexit did so with grandiloquent lies, lots of dark money and apparently very little thought to the question of Ireland and its fragile peace, even though it was obvious that the border would be central to the whole calamitous endeavour. Last year, Priti Patel, a Conservative legislator, suggested that the food shortages Brexit was likely to cause could be used as a negotiating tactic to get the Irish to relent on the backstop. Johnson promoted her — she is now home secretary.
Johnson has no solutions. Increasingly he looks like Bob Dylan’s rolling stone: on his own, no direction home. Brexiteers arrogantly assumed other countries in the European Union would line up to follow Britain out. Instead they have looked on as the United Kingdom tears itself apart. Scotland is preparing for independence, and there is serious discussion here about a poll to reunite Ireland within the European Union.
How does it feel, Boris?
The bloc’s new trade commissioner is, by the way, Irish. Bring on Athena.
— Susan McKay is a columnist and is writing a book about the Irish border.