Current Affairs Politics

Boris Johnson Considering Northern Referendum On Backstop Protocol

Several weeks ago the former Conservative Party politician Michael Portillo observed on a BBC current affairs show that there were almost no circumstances under which the United Kingdom could leave the European Union that not include some version of the Backstop Protocol negotiated in 2017 by Brussels and Dublin with London, and later rejected by a majority of UK ministers and parliamentarians, bar a so-called no-deal Brexit. Indeed, the ex-Secretary of State for Defence predicted that whoever assumed the leadership of his old party, and the premiership of Britain, would likely seek to have the peace-protecting clause in the Withdrawal Agreement returned to its previous “Northern Ireland”-only status, allowing the UK to exit the EU while keeping its legacy colony across the Irish Sea in regulatory alignment with Europe’s customs union and single market. Even if a cosmetically different name was substituted for the word “backstop” in any arrangement to ease British sensitivities about the deal.

Portillo’s remarks did not make much of an impact outside of some hardline unionist circles in London and Belfast, with various representatives of the Democratic Unionist and Ulster Unionist parties and their journalistic equivalents rejecting his line of reasoning. However that has not stopped increasing speculation on the subject with even some members of the European Research Group (ERG), a staunchly anti-EU faction of the Tories, lending a sympathetic ear to the suggested solution out of the UK’s seemingly interminable Brexit impasse. According to a handful of media reports in London a proposal that has been floating around in several forms for some time, that voters in the north-east of Ireland should be given the opportunity to support or oppose a Six Counties-only backstop deal through a local referendum, is gaining ground in Westminster. And while this may be still on the fringes of British politics it is understood that Boris Johnson, the main contender for the leadership of the Conservative Party and the likely next Prime Minster of Britain, is apparently discussing this idea with his advisers.

Which raises the question, given that the main unionist parties in north-east Ulster are pro-Brexit while their northern nationalist and nonaligned rivals are anti-Brexit, how likely is it that a “backstop referendum” would be influenced by older constitutional concerns, becoming a sort of proto-“border poll” or plebiscite on a reunited Ireland in the process?

11 comments on “Boris Johnson Considering Northern Referendum On Backstop Protocol

  1. It seems extremely unlikely that Boris Johnson is going to succeed where Theresa May failed. While I’m no fan of May’s politics on the whole, it really comes across as if her resignation was a cased of “Being punished for failure to deliver the impossible.”

    Johnson is a fool if he thinks the EU is going to be more cooperative with him then May. May came across as a fairly reasonable woman, and the same cannot be said Johnson.

    It’s my fear that Britain is going to straight up self-destruct, especially if it leaves the EU with no deal, or even if somehow Brexit is reversed. I am talking about widespread food shortages, Weimar levels of unemployment, NHS completely kaput, massive unrest and possibly a second English Civil War, as no longer far fetched scenarios. I take no pleasure in the idea, and fear the fallout may affect much of the world….not the least be dangerous for Ireland. The EU and UN are willing to help protect Ireland, clearly. And right now, The US Congress at least, is prepared to refuse any rewards to Britain if Ireland is harmed.

    The big question now is why they care about about the Irish border so much right now, when there country could so easily go into “national suicide” mode.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think a hard Brexit will hit the UK economy big time but I suspect the effects will be closer to the kind of austerity-driven or low-government spending inspired unrest of the Thatcher years. That saw some remarkable political contention and conflict in the UK.

      More open violence than that seems very unlikely, beyond occasional eruptions of street disorder.


      • I think you might be buying just a bit into Fintan O’Toole’s paradigm/schema where ANY prognostication of bad things from somebody who is not currently persecuted is automatically written off as pathological self-pity. The syllogism seems to come to “because of their history of Empire, Britain is more or less immune to terrible situation and any other suggestion is just imagining things”. Well France’s and Belgium’s Imperial histories (arguably crueler than Britain’s if less extensive didn’t do much to protect her from being conquered by The Third Reich, and Spain’s Great Empire did nothing to stop The Spanish Civil War and its horrors. Russia is really the undisputed world champion at having both flexed a great deal of Imperial Muscle and yet having a history as filled with terrible suffering and Ireland does.

        I think the English/Britain can end up in a horrible fix they might not be able to extract themselves from if their government doesn’t get its act together and fast. 80% of Britain’s food is imported, much of it from the EU. Their whole supposedly “super practical” written Constitution has no idea how to cope with a Referendum that does anything but affirm the status quo, and right now, the government has no idea how to deal with it at any level.

        Boris Johnson doesn’t exactly look like the perfect guy to do a course correction, he’s probably going to make it all into a bigger shit show.

        I can buy a lot of “soft signs” in terms of historical parallels that Britain is going into a very, very bad place:

        1) The Tudor Henry VIII parallels- Namely to when Henry VIII outed Britain from another pan-European power of the day. Having seen writing on the matter from a bunch of people ranging from an Australian Tudor historian with an English father, to a historian of finance associated with the Bank of Japan. Although it’s easy to come up with dumb historical parallels (look up “spooky similarities between Lincoln and Kennedy assassination”), this one seems unusually convincing. And frankly, much, much scarier than the British Empire 2.0 concept given what Britian is realistically capable of and their financial influence. I could be more afraid for the citizens of fairly remote countries a mild “Henry VIII parallel” scenario than I would be for the most vulnerable of Northern Ireland in a “Empire 2.0” one.

        2) It’s hard not to see a sort of dark passive nihilism in today’s Britons much like the one found towards the later days of the USSR.

        3) A lot of what you see socially in the UK also reminds me of a lot of stuff in US society that in retrospect turned out to be symptomatic of the tensions that led up to The Civil War. Indeed the rising hate crimes in England (against groups that have been around for a while!!!!! including transgenders who obviously aren’t new and mostly didn’t migrate to Britain) reminds me a lot of the unusually severe anti-immigrant fervor that greeted Irish people in the US during soon after The Great Famine. Was “fighting for Mr. Lincoln” more rewarding than “taking the King’s Schilling”. To some extent I’m sure it was, but some say part of the decline in severe hibernophobia after The Civil War, was the result of much of the tensions making it so extreme having been diffused.


        • Maybe, but as of now I find it hard to envision anything worse following a hard or no-deal Brexit than the worse excesses and civil unrest of the 1970s and ’80s in Britain. Maybe the UK will go full “Yugoslavia”, minus the civil wars, but I’d be surprised if it did. Modern democracies are remarkably resilient things and the UK (for which you can read England) is institutionally invested in ordered continuity.

          The country may, in the view of the chattering classes, have gone to hell but that doesn’t mean a majority will countenance the edifice collapsing around their ears. I expect the UK to survive even the likely loss of its Irish outpost. The appetite for anything else is not there, even in Scotland.


          • I guess a lot depends on who seizes the political reins. Not too difficult to see a hard right government in power in the UK in the near to medium term. I don’t think it is likely but it’s far from implausible. That said I’d think the Tories will probably survive in power for the mean time and a lot depends on the form of Brexit. If there’s a stab in the back mythos over Brexit and how it plays out that’s a different matter. But I think the Tories will probably tamp things down and on it staggers (though with constituent elements such as Scotland fraying yet further from the union).

            But it is true there’s a sense of division in the UK or rather England unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the last forty or more years. It’s very weird and very unpredictable.

            Liked by 1 person

          • I’m sure King Charles I and Tsar Nicholas II were if anything more invested in ordered continuity than today’s London establishment.

            Looking at British politics today it seems to combine the absolute most dysfunctional aspects of The Soviet Politburo in the 70’s and 80’s, with the most treacherous aspects of US politics in the 1840’s and 1850’s only worse-and I think we know how both those stories ended.

            The scariest thing about it is an absolute lack of any self-corrective element in British politics or society. Not even the most minimal half-assed probably-too-little-too-late, measures to avoid this Great Self-Destruction seem to have any real force behind them.

            Even if they held a new election tomorrow and the outcome means the wisest most sensible leader Britain has ever had becomes PM, that might still not be able to do more than a partial course correct at this point.


            • Yeah, absolutely true. And I think you’re right that there’s massive dysfunction in British politics. Whether it is at the sort of levels found in the Soviets, or the US in the 1840s I don’t know. It doesn’t feel quite that way, even if it is at unprecedented levels. But also I’d agree re the self-corrective – the opposition has been in part sitting on its hands hoping things would get worse for the govt, which they have but also for that part of the opposition. And they never shaped a convincing position around a soft-Brexit which should have been possible. In a way the biggest problem has been two camps so similar in size that they block each other and a referendum process sufficiently flawed (though I think it was still mostly legitimate or had enough legitimacy that the UK had to leave the EU) that it could continually be called into question. So the idea of a compromise – EFTA/EEA or whatever, was squeezed.

              But getting back to your thoughts, I can’t help but feel that there’s still a way to go before societal no-deal Brexit along the lines of what MetalGuru suggests could trigger serious social discontent (Indeed the police and army in the UK have been warning of such an outcome).


      • MetalGuru

        One needs to consider what exactly will happen if there is a hard Brexit and the UK crashes out with a no-deal. Will the EU ramp up tariffs and do detailed checks on every freight lorry going to the EU by ferry or Eurotunnel? Will the M20 be turned into a parking lot for lorries again?

        Remember England is the country in which people were ringing up the police to complain that their local KFC had run out of chicken (following a supply chain fiasco when they changed suppliers) to the closing of the 2nd busiest airport for 3 days due to a toy helicopter. Imagine what will happen if real food shortages hit or prices double overnight? The EU could really hit the UK hard for a few weeks until they come back begging for a deal. Boris, the bluffer, will crack first and will have no hesitation to agree to a backstop in any format.


  2. The Portillo suggestion would probably work if Bojo is willing to shaft the DUP which he would no doubt do to save Brexit for England and Wales. But support for Scottish Nationalism would be going through the roof to such a level as it would be impossible to deny them a second referendum on Independence. Which ever way you look at it the United Kingdom seems to be on borrowed time.


  3. gendjinn

    Everyone above is pretty much spot on. The thing is, on October 31st it will not matter if it’s May, Hunt or Johnson. The Withdrawal Agreement is not passing the commons in its current form. EU will not renegotiate. The DUP will not permit NI only backstop. Now that England’s a 4-way marginal that is no longer such an insane thing to do. Feckers could come back king makers again.

    Without the WA, it’s a hard Brexit.

    At whatever point the UK decides to cry uncle and ask the EU for a trade deal. It will first have to pass the Withdrawal Agreement. See above.

    The equal marriage/abortion developments today are interesting, a shot across the bows of the DUP? It really does put the DUP on the strategic backfoot with the October 22nd time limit. Very curious.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. SF will now hold out until after October 21st to get a Irish Language Act giving them a 3-0 victory over the DUP. The DUP have played their hand very badly. It would not surprise me if SF are in talks for a Irish Language Act with Scottish or Welsh Nationalists in order for them to table one in Westminster Parliament.


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