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Boris Johnson has sprung himself a trap on the Irish border

The Financial Times logo The Financial Times 07/08/2019 Jonathan Powell
Boris Johnson wearing a suit and tie: Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, speaks with with Juri Ratas, Estonia's prime minister, not pictured, during a meeting inside number 10 Downing Street in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019. As Johnson hurtles toward a no-deal Brexit that could leave the U.K. diplomatically adrift and economically vulnerable, U.S. President Donald Trump is looking to seize an opportunity to lure the country away from Europe on some of his top foreign policy priorities: Iran and Huawei. Photographer: Will Oliver/Pool via Bloomberg © Provided by Financial Times Limited Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, speaks with with Juri Ratas, Estonia's prime minister, not pictured, during a meeting inside number 10 Downing Street in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019. As Johnson hurtles toward a no-deal Brexit that could leave the U.K. diplomatically adrift and economically vulnerable, U.S. President Donald Trump is looking to seize an opportunity to lure the country away from Europe on some of his top foreign policy priorities: Iran and Huawei. Photographer: Will Oliver/Pool via Bloomberg

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Theresa May made a classic negotiating mistake by engaging in Brexit talks with the EU before agreeing a position with her own side. Her successor as UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, is now making the opposite mistake by refusing to talk to the Europeans until they concede on his major demand — dropping the Northern Ireland “backstop” to prevent a hard border in Ireland. He is likely to incur a similarly disastrous outcome.

Setting preconditions to a negotiation in this way is almost always an error. Mr Johnson will either face a humiliating climbdown or the prospect of no negotiations taking place at all before the deadline of October 31.

He should learn from the experience of his predecessor John Major, who was forced to drop his demand that the IRA decommission its weapons before entering negotiations.

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - JULY 31:  An Anti-Brexit protest takes place beneath the statue of Edward Carson as Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Stormont on July 31, 2019 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister is on his first official visit to Northern Ireland to discuss Brexit, and the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, with the main political parties. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images) © Catalyst Images BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - JULY 31: An Anti-Brexit protest takes place beneath the statue of Edward Carson as Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Stormont on July 31, 2019 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister is on his first official visit to Northern Ireland to discuss Brexit, and the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, with the main political parties. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images) The 1994 IRA ceasefire was not “permanent”, as the government had hoped, and the British did not want to find themselves negotiating in the face of the threat of renewed violence. They therefore demanded that the IRA decommission all its weapons before republicans could join the negotiations. They were refused. The government revised the demand down to the majority of its weapons, but again they were snubbed.

Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland secretary, made a speech in which he reduced the demand to “the actual decommissioning of some arms”, which became known as “Washington Three”, the third condition for Sinn Féin’s participation. This too was rejected and in 1996 the IRA returned to violence.

The issue of the decommissioning of weapons continued to dog the talks for more than a decade but, in the end, the British government had to accept, on the basis of a formula proposed by US senator George Mitchell, that Sinn Féin could have a seat at the table without giving up a single weapon. The alternative was no peace negotiations.

Gallery: Brexit turmoil hits the streets (Reuters)

Mr Johnson has sprung himself a similar trap, even if with a very different sort of negotiating partner. There is no chance of the EU dropping the backstop as a precondition for meeting him, even if they were prepared to discuss it face to face. And, as long as the British government does not put forward a convincing alternative to deal with the threat posed to the Good Friday Agreement by Britain leaving the single market and the customs union and thereby recreating a hard border, the EU cannot back down.

The Brexiter refrain of “technology” does not address the question, let alone answer it. It is true that when, and if, the technology is invented, it could speed the passage of a lorry across the border, but that is not the problem. The problem is that a hard border again raises the issue of identity which was resolved by the Good Friday Agreement. Putting cameras and gates at or near the border makes that worse. The installations will become targets for attack by dissident republicans. We will be back where we started.

But perhaps Mr Johnson’s aim is not to get into a negotiation at all, even though he assures us there is only a one in a million chance of a no-deal Brexit. Perhaps he is trying to set up a situation where he can blame the EU for refusing to negotiate on the backstop, and a Remainer majority in the House of Commons for trying to block him from leaving the EU without a deal, and then call an election.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to greet King Abdullah II of Jordan outside 10 Downing Street in London on August 7, 2019, ahead of bilateral talks and a working lunch. (Photo by Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)        (Photo credit should read DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images) © Catalyst Images Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to greet King Abdullah II of Jordan outside 10 Downing Street in London on August 7, 2019, ahead of bilateral talks and a working lunch. (Photo by Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) (Photo credit should read DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images) Mr Johnson’s most influential adviser and the man who led the Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings, appears to have given the game away. He says the prime minister could call and election before October 31 but hold it after that date, while in the meantime doing nothing to stop the UK leaving the EU on Halloween. That would be to tear up constitutional convention.

The response from the Brexiters is that convention doesn’t matter. But that works both ways. The UK does not have a written constitution, but our system depends on political leaders respecting unwritten rules. If the Tory radicals rip up the conventions, so can the opposition. The clear view of the civil service, as I understand it, is that a caretaker government, having been defeated in a confidence vote in parliament and holding an election, is not permitted to undertake controversial political acts during that period. If Mr Johnson were to press ahead, he would be plunging the country into a constitutional crisis.

Nor would that be the only crisis. Mr Johnson’s Europe adviser went to Brussels last week to ask when negotiations on a new relationship could start again after a no-deal Brexit. The answer: if the UK has crashed out and failed to pay its dues, it could be a very long time indeed. The country could be in purgatory for as long as a decade with no new relationship with the EU, having to kowtow to President Donald Trump’s terms for an unfavourable trade deal with the US.

What starts as a negotiating mis-step could result in a crisis on a scale we have not faced for 80 years.

The writer was chief British negotiator on Northern Ireland 1997-2007

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