Rambling, incoherent, and disingenuous, Boris Johnson’s North of Ireland Brexit speech is proof – not that proof is needed – that he is completely untrustworthy, writes Donal O’Keeffe.
Last Thursday saw a vintage Boris Johnson performance at an election rally in Templepatrick in Co Antrim.
Ramshackle, ill-prepared, and looking as usual like he’d got dressed while running through a garden hedge as he barely escaped another angry husband, the UK prime minister spoke with strange, excited emphases, pauses of staged forgetfulness, and rambling non sequiturs, holding in his left hand a glass of clear liquid, while his right hand gesticulated and pointed wildly in the air, as though it were possessed by the drunken ghost of Rod Hull’s Emu.
“So when you come out of the, of the, EU customs union! which is what we’ve done, you have to have some way of checking! that goods that might be, attract a tariff going from the United Kingdom into… Ireland! pay that tariff… if there is to be a tariff.
“The only place you can do it, if you don’t pay it at the border is…” (here Emu pecked the air excitedly) “at the border in Northern Ireland.
“Most, more, there, there! will not be tariffs or checks on goods coming from GB to NI… that are not going on… to Ireland, that’s the whole point. And the great thing that’s been misunderstood about this is there will not be checks, there will not be checks, I speak as the prime minister of the United Kingdom, and a passionate unionist, there will not be checks! on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain!
“Because we’re the government of Great Britain and we will not institute! or implement! or… enact such checks, and the idea that, Tayto Crisps from Tandragee, are going to be affected south of, by some… process is, is just nonsense, so actually Northern Ireland has got a great deal. It’s got a, it’s got a great deal. You, you, keep, you keep free movement, you keep access to the, to the single market, but you also have – as it says in the deal! – unfatted, unfettered access to, ah, to GB.
“And, so, we can also come out and do free traders, and, so it’s, the only reason they gave us that deal by the way was because they were, at the back of their minds, they were still worried that we would come out without a deal.”
Irwin Armstrong, owner of Ciga Healthcare in Ballymena, an ardent Brexiteer and former chairman of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland, asked: “Can I go back to my company in the morning and tell my staff we will not be filling in any customs declarations for goods leaving Northern Ireland going to GB?”
“You can,” replied Johnson, “You can.”
“Okay,” said Armstrong. “That’s not what everyone believes, by the way.”
“You can,” insisted Johnson. “And you, you, you, you absolutely not have, and if somebody asks you to do that, tell them to ring up the Prime Minister, and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin.”
When Armstrong appeared to suggest others might disagree, Johnson asked Armstrong what he exports.
“Do you export uh illegal weapons?” he asked, with a smirk, as the Tory audience laughed and the hand of Emu counted as high as two. “Or endangered species?”
Armstrong replied that his business depends on being able to export “a lot of small £50, £100 shipments to pharmacies. We do medical diagnostics…”
“You’ll be alright,” decreed Johnson, waving his hand.
“…And we cannot afford to increase the costs on small shipments,” said Armstrong. “It’s not feasible.”
“No, no, you’re not going eee ah ah I mean there will be no, there will be no ah no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind, you will have unfettered access.”
To summarise Johnson’s remarks: there would be no Irish Sea border for goods from the North exported to Britain and “there will not be tariffs or checks on goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland that are not going on to Ireland”.
Under the Brexit deal agreed in October between the EU and the UK, the North will remain in the UK customs union post-Brexit, but will be subject to EU customs rules. This avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland by placing regulatory and customs checks at ports on the Irish Sea.
Johnson’s comments are completely contradicted by the text of EU/UK deal, and by his own Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, who previously admitted to the House of Lords that businesses such as Irwin Armstrong’s Ciga Healthcare would have to fill “exit summary declarations” for just such shipments as Armstrong instanced.
Shadow Brexit secretary, Labour’s Keir Starmer, said: “This is a prime minister who either doesn’t know the details of the deal he has negotiated or isn’t being straight about it.
“If this deal comes into force, it’s an international treaty that will be legally binding. It’s not for Boris Johnson to waive or ignore the obligations in the deal he has negotiated. Boris Johnson’s making it up as he goes along. This is no way to seek to run the country.”
The North of Ireland/Northern Ireland (so contentious a territory that we can’t even agree on what the damned place is called) has always been the rock upon which Brexiteers’ fever dreams of a swashbuckling free-market Singapore-on-Thames would perish; where their desperate need to be free of EU tyranny crashes into the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement (same again) and where, in a place long-used to simultaneous contradictory absolutes, the need for there to be no hard border on the island of Ireland must co-exist with the need for there to be a hard border between the EU and the UK.
Irwin Armstrong, owner of Ciga Healthcare and dyed-in-the-wool Tory Brexiteer, last Thursday tweeted: “In response to my direct question PM Boris Johnston [sic] confirms at NI Conservatives event this evening that there will be no duties, paperwork or form filling on goods produced in NI going to GB. This is a relief to many local companies who make small shipments to GB.”
The following day, perhaps as the spell of BoJo faded, Armstrong retweeted a link to an excellent piece from The Article (referring to Johnson’s visit to the Tayto factory in Tandragee, Co Armagh) entitled: “A talking potato would be more convincing than Boris on Brexit deal detail”.
Martin Schirdewan, a German member of the EU parliament’s Brexit steering group, told The Guardian Johnson had “only a very vague idea” of the withdrawal agreement. “He either doesn’t understand or is playing electoral politics with people’s livelihoods. It is irresponsible either way.”
There’s really no need to be so reductive, Herr Schirdewan.
Given Boris Johnson’s track record, there’s no reason he can’t be playing politics while not knowing what he’s talking about, because – as an unspecified number of women will attest – Boris Johnson will say whatever he thinks will get him whatever he wants in that moment, and will later abandon his commitments without a second’s afterthought.