The United Kingdom’s colony on the island of Ireland, from the historical Thirty-Two Counties to the contemporary Six Counties, has long been a source of ideological succour for maverick politicians from the UK. During the long transition between the 19th and 20th centuries a veritable cavalcade of desperate reactionaries from London passed through the streets and meeting-halls of Belfast, issuing fire and brimstone speeches to the loyalist faithful, vowing to maintain the “union” against whatever electoral or military odds it faced in the hopes of furthering their own parliamentary or ministerial careers back home.
In the late 1800s Lord Randolph Churchill MP, the father of the future wartime prime minister, urged the unionist minority in Ireland to resist the “home rule” legislation demanded by the nationalist majority, believing that the “Orange card would be the one to play” if he and his Conservative Party colleagues were to gain power in the United Kingdom. Nearly a century later, Enoch Powell, the ardently anti-European Tory MP, exiled himself to the UK’s shrunken territory in the north-east of the island following his infamous “rivers of blood” speech in opposition to non-white immigration to Britain, successfully standing for the “moderate” Ulster Unionist Party in County Down from 1974 to 1987.
Given that history, there is little surprise in witnessing Boris Johnson MP, the would-be Donald Trump of UK populist politics, turning up in Belfast this weekend to make a speech at the annual conference of the heretofore toxic Democratic Unionist Party. In a spectacular show of mendacity, sycophancy and unintended hypocrisy the former British government foreign secretary whipped up the DUP membership into a europhobic and chauvinistic frenzy following his bravado address. With the ten MPs of the hard-right grouping currently in a shaky parliamentary alliance with the Conservatives, Johnson, like many others in London, clearly believes that the “Orange Card” is the one to play in order to make Brexit a reality. And with the DUP contingent in Westminster being led by the likes of Jeffery Donaldson MP, a former close aide of Enoch Powell in the 1980s and the de facto leader of the anti-peace faction of the UUP until his desertion to the DUP in the 2000s, it is easy to see why.
Good afternoon. I want to begin with a big thank you to the people of Northern Ireland who allowed me to deliver an absolutely crucial political promise.
It was more than ten years ago that I was cycling along Holborn and was almost crushed by a bendy bus so long and so patently unsuited to the streets of London that I vowed there and then to get elected as mayor just to remove it – and at the same time to remove from office the left wing, IRA sympathising, united Ireland-promoting semi-Marxist who then inhabited City Hall.
And we did and we defeated this representative of the old London hard left, and we got those German-made bendy buses off the streets.
And instead we commissioned a vehicle that has become an iconic piece of design that has featured in Bond films and is used reflexively to identify the hip, modern, thriving and funkapolitan culture of London. And with its seats made in Telford, its destination blinds from Manchester, its engines from Darlington and its wheelchair ramps from Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire, it would already be pretty representative of this country.
And when you consider therefore that it was conceived designed and assembled here in Northern Ireland – in Ballymena by Wrightbus – I believe that bus is the United Kingdom on wheels.
And whenever you see one of these noble elephant-browed beasts, you are looking at a piece of Northern Ireland in London.
So I want to thank the Ballymena workforce and today I particularly want to thank our friends in the DUP. In the last 18 months you have supplied the essential components – the fuel, the wheels, you pick your vehicular metaphor – without which the government of our United Kingdom could not have been carried on.
Without you it is likely that the mighty engine of the UK economy would have stuttered and stalled. And indeed if it was not for you then there is a risk that the union itself would have been placed in jeopardy. And why has the DUP been so crucial?
Because there was a real danger, after that election in June last year, that the government of the whole UK could have been handed over to Jeremy Corbyn. A man whose economic policies would mean ruin for this country.
Pointlessly renationalising businesses at a cost to the taxpayer of hundreds of billions of pounds. Recklessly expropriating ten per cent of the equity of companies across the land.
A Labour leader who along with his putative chancellor John McDonnell actually believes that the real problem with the Venezuelan economy is that Hugo Chavez was not able to implement the entirety of his demented socialist agenda
And as if that were not bad enough, this is a man who has not only campaigned for a united Ireland but who has still – to the best of my knowledge – failed to condemn the terrorist atrocities of the IRA. It is thanks to the arrangement between our two parties that we were able to stop him taking over.
And today we are looking at a country that is benefiting from sensible moderate and one nation Conservative government. We have unemployment running at the lowest rate since 1975. We have real wage growth at last. We have the deficit falling and the UK once again one of the fastest growing economies in Europe.
And so to our allies in the DUP I hope that you agree that it is absolutely vital that we keep this partnership going and that we are not so complacent as to abandon the government of this country to a man whose avowed policy is to break up this country.
And we should work together to ensure that the whole UK – Northern Ireland included – can seize the opportunities of Brexit. You have heard from Nigel and Arlene and I will not repeat their message except to say that we are on the verge of making a historic mistake if we are not careful. We are going to stay in the customs union. We are going to stay in the single market. We are going to be rule takers.
Unless we junk this backstop, we will find that Brussels has got us exactly where they want us – a satellite state. We will continue to accept the terms under which they have a surplus in trade in goods with us of £95 billion. But with no power to influence those terms. We won’t be able to do free trade deals of any value or significance.
Because they have done a very clever trick. They have made Northern Ireland their indispensable bargaining chip in the next round of negotiations. Indeed if you read the withdrawal agreement you can see that we are witnessing the birth of a new country called UK-NI. UK-NI is no longer exclusively ruled by London or Stormont – it is in large part to be ruled by Brussels. And UK-NI will have to accept large swathes of EU regulations now and in the future.
On lawnmower noise on the labelling of sardines on the use of coins and tokens that may be deemed to resemble a euro. And on the use of personal recreational watercraft. And nowhere has a more illustrious history than Northern Ireland when it comes to the creation of recreational watercraft.
The Titanic springs to mind, and now is the time to point out the iceberg ahead because these obligations won’t just apply to current EU regulations, but anything that Brussels devises in the future.
So if a Northern Irish inventor comes up with a personal recreational watercraft that is perfectly safe but in some way revolutionary, a northern Irish pedalo or paddleboard that threatens to demolish the competitors in Germany, Italy, or wherever then it will be all too likely – as we saw with Dyson and his hairdryers – that they will legislate in such a way as to ban that UK invention not just for sale in the EU but for sale in Northern Ireland.
As a country we would therefore be faced with a Hobson’s choice. If we wanted to do free trade deals, if we wanted to cut tariffs or vary our regulation then we would have to leave Northern Ireland behind as an economic semi-colony of the EU and we would be damaging the fabric of the Union with regulatory checks and even customs controls between GB and NI – on top of those extra regulatory checks down the Irish Sea that are already envisaged in the Withdrawal Agreement.
No British Conservative government could or should sign up to anything of the kind and so our answer at the moment is rather desperately to make sure the whole UK stays in the backstop with the EU having the power to decide whether or not we can ever leave and why should they? We will have given up the £39 billion. They don’t want us doing those free trade deals. They don’t want goods from third countries undercutting the vast EU exports to the UK. Think what price they will ask, in the coming negotiations, for giving us our freedom. They might ask us to accept a special deal on immigration, making a further nonsense of Brexit.
They might ask us to accept the whole gamut of EU legislation on services as well as goods and agri-foods and all the level playing field commitments we have already made. This deal risks yet further economic and political humiliation. We are locking ourselves in by treaty and making it impossible to negotiate our way out in the second half of the talks. This is not what we voted for. It is self-evidently not taking back control of our laws. It is not taking back control of our borders – 80 per cent of the value of our tariffs will continue to go to Brussels.
It remains to be seen how much of our money we will really control and how much they will charge for this arrangement and so we need to get out of this hole, and here is what we do:
1. We need to bank what is sensible in the Withdrawal agreement – the good progress that has been made on the rights of citizens, the rights of workers, and on mutual recognition of professional qualifications, a fair and reasonable deal on benefits – none of which was in any serious danger. The political declaration likewise contains much good sense about our continuing ambitions for policy coordination on home affairs, counter-terrorism, foreign policy and all the rest of it. As the PM rightly said this week, we are leaving the EU but we are NOT leaving Europe, and under any circumstances we will have a deep and intimate and productive relationship with our friends in the EU.
2. We need to junk the backstop and agree that neither side will introduce a hard border in Northern Ireland. Both governments have already been clear that they have no such intention; the Commission has no such intention; the technical solutions do exist, as Michel Barnier has said himself and the whole subject should be remitted to the discussion the Future economic partnership where it properly belongs.
3. We need to agree in the text of the withdrawal agreement that we will have an FTA on ‘super Canada’ lines, and we should dedicate the so-called implementation period to the negotiations. That leaves almost two years, which should be plenty of time to do a zero-tariff zero quota deal given that we start from a position of zero tariffs and zero quotas.
4. We should withhold at least half the cash until the FTA is agreed at the end of 2020. I have never known a major EU negotiation not to conclude with the financial settlement and we need to restore the proper order and incentives.
5. We need a secretary of state for no deal or WTO terms, with real powers across Whitehall to make things happen. I do not believe that we will exit without a deal – that is totally unnecessary – but it is only responsible of government to make the proper preparations.
6. We need urgently to recover our confidence and our self belief, and to stop treating Brexit as if it were a plague of frogs or a murrain on our cattle or some adverse weather event that had to be managed.
Brexit presents massive opportunities to escape a European model whose signature project is the Euro.
That is still causing 35 per cent absolute poverty in Greece and grossly unnecessary unemployment in much of the EU. A European model whose regulatory overload costs 5 to 7 per cent of GDP.
We need to have the courage and self-belief to do things differently if we want to and need to. The UK is the fifth-biggest economy in the world. Under this Conservative government we are putting in record levels of infrastructure investment.
We are putting in the roads, the rail, the housing, the bridges and the power stations that will give business the platform for growth and investment and now is the time to progress the admirable suggestions of Professor Alan Dunlop of Liverpool university. And develop plans for a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland – as you in the DUP have correctly been urging. It is a far shorter distance than that covered by some bridges these days – look at Shanghai to Ningbo. The problem is not the undersea Beaufort’s Dyke or lack of funds. The problem is political will – and we need strong regional government to drive such projects.
And I therefore hope that Stormont can be revived as fast as possible as a champion of investment in NI. No one can doubt the effectiveness of the DUP in appealing for investment from the Treasury; as a former mayor, I like your style.
But there is even more to be done and if we continue to make those investments throughout the country then that will build the platform that business needs. And if we get the right Brexit deal that gives us real freedom to trade and to innovate as a whole UK. Then we can turbocharge the areas in which this country already leads Europe if not the world.
I am delighted to say that Wrightbus already sells to China and India and Singapore – indeed I remember helping with some of the sales pitches, both as mayor and foreign secretary. Think how much more we could do with free trade deals that not only cut the cost of food and clothing and shoes for people in this country but which could open up markets around the world for UK goods.
At a time when free trade needs a powerful global champion, and when the world wants the UK to play that role, this is our moment to play to our strengths, and to maximise those strengths with our regulatory approach. We have the biggest tech sector. The biggest financial sector. The best universities.
We have more Nobel prizes from one Cambridge college than from Russia and china combined. By far the most dynamic creative culture and media industries. Which was the biggest grossing movie last year? Star Wars and where does George Lucas propose to make a follow up about Obi-Wan Kenobi? Northern Ireland.
But what is the name of the weapon wielded by Obi-Wan. The glowing throbbing rod with its enigmatic hum. A light sabre – and where did they make the first light sabre?
Yes, it was in my own constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Take the scenic splendour and cinematic expertise of Nothern Ireland, add the inventiveness of Uxbridge and you have the creative genius of the United Kingdom. The only country to be a net exporter of music to the US.
And in the words of that great Northern Irish singer Van Morrison: it is time we all moved from the dark end of the street to the bright side of the road. We have time to get this right. And we have an absolute duty to get it right. And I hope that we Conservatives can continue to work. With you as proud and passionate unionists backing our union against all those who would seek to divide us and believing in our amazing and ingenious United Kingdom and in what we can do together.