Belfast Telegraph

Jonathan Powell: Boris Johnson's proposals are baffling to many but, in simple terms, it is Northern Ireland that will hurt the most

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Danny Lawson/PA)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Danny Lawson/PA)

By Jonathan Powell

There has been so much smoke and mirrors around Boris Johnson's proposal for Northern Ireland that it is hard, unless you are an expert, to know what it means.

For people here it is worth standing back and looking at what has changed and what the implications would be.

First, the DUP have compromised in accepting that Northern Ireland should remain in the single market for goods as well as agriculture.

This is a big step for a unionist party as it means accepting a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK; a border that will become more complex and difficult as the UK and EU economies diverge on regulation over time.

Secondly, the British Government has done something it has said up to now it would never do, which is to impose a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Two countries that have different customs policies have to have a hard border even if they are both in the single market, just as Norway and Sweden do.

All the talk we have heard over the last three years about this being done by technology and trusted trader schemes is just so much hooey, not least since the technology does not exist. So be under no misapprehension, there will have to be checks and there will be a hard border which will undermine the basis on which the Good Friday Agreement was built in trying to find a way of dealing peacefully with the different identities of the different communities in Northern Ireland.

Third, the proposal makes a gesture towards the principle of consent by saying that the continuation of the arrangements need to be confirmed every four years by Stormont. As everyone who lives in Northern Ireland knows, the problem with Stormont, apart from the fact it hasn't been in existence for the last two years, is that the cross-community arrangements mean that both the DUP and Sinn Fein have a veto.

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So rather than letting the majority in Northern Ireland, which is pro-Remain, have the say in whether membership of the single market continues to apply, the decision is being put in the hands of the pro-Brexit DUP.

Paradoxically we now have the traditionally pro-majoritarian DUP opposed to giving the people of Northern Ireland a say in this crucial decision through a referendum because they fear they would be in a minority. It is of course extremely unlikely that the EU would agree to any of these provisions because of the dual threat they pose to peace in Northern Ireland and to the integrity of the single market and the customs union.

But the danger I fear for Northern Ireland is that it becomes the mouse as the two elephants - the EU and the British Government - mate, and it is Northern Ireland that will lose out in any agreement they reach with very dangerous long-term consequences.

Jonathan Powell was chief British negotiator in NI from 1997 to 2007

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