Wednesday 16 January 2019

Buffoon from the East fools no one with his Brexit bluster

Boris Johnson's vacuous hot air over the Irish border problem has led to Dublin giving him the cold shoulder, writes Kevin Doyle

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson Victoria Jones/PA Wire
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

The warning signs were all there. Storm clouds gathered as far back as November, but there didn't seem to be a whole lot that the officials could do. Whether it was a status 'Red' situation may not have been clear, but the Government was worried.

The 'Buffoon from the East' was spouting vacuous hot air.

And as feared, the direction of his blizzard eventually swung from Brussels to across the Irish Sea last week as Boris Johnson set out about trying to dismantle all in his path.

The former mayor of London now sits as foreign secretary in a government clinging to power by its fingertips while simultaneously make some of the biggest decisions in British history.

And yet it seems he lacks the basic understanding of the issues at play.

His numerous interventions over recent days barely made front-page news here because a different kind of storm was wrecking havoc.

But if Johnson is allowed to go unchecked by Theresa May then, like the 'Beast from the East', he too could create a material threat to this country.

In case you missed it, here's a short recap of what Johnson had to say about the Irish border. Last Tuesday, he compared it to crossing between London boroughs.

"There's no border between... Camden and Westminster... but when I was mayor of London we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people travelling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks whatever," he said.

This simplistic view would be lovely - but, not having even visited the border region, perhaps the Foreign Secretary doesn't understand what he's dealing with.

There are more border crossings in Ireland than on the whole of the EU's eastern frontier. The land borders to the east stretch for around 6,000km but have only 137 crossings with places like Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and Russia. On the island of Ireland, there are almost 300 crossings in the space of 500km. During the Troubles just 20 of them were open.

Asked why Johnson had not visited the border area since the Brexit vote, a source in Dublin replied: "He's the Foreign Secretary, he can visit the border of the UK any day of the week. Nobody is keeping Boris from the border so perhaps he's choosing not to go places where there's only one answer to the logical questions that would be asked."

Johnson's other big statement came in the form of a leaked letter to May.

The effort, entitled The Northern Ireland/Ireland border - the Facilitated Solution, was conveniently leaked to Sky News, which reported him as saying "it is wrong to see the task as maintaining no border" in Ireland after Brexit.

Johnson suggested the UK government should prevent the border from becoming "significantly" harder. And "even if a hard border is reintroduced, we would expect to see 95pc+ of goods pass the border [without] checks".

The statement made a mockery of the negotiations undertaken to date between the British prime minister and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Checks on 5pc of goods crossing the border means there is a border. It is not "frictionless" or "invisible".

Yet there was no immediate slap-down from the Government here for two reasons.

The first is that the Department of Foreign Affairs is keen not to spark further headlines about an Anglo-Irish war.

The second is that it hasn't really take Johnson seriously since he bounced into Iveagh House last November, making jokes about drinking Guinness in Nigeria.

The performance was part of what a letter writer to the The Guardian once described as his "carefully rehearsed amiable buffoon act".

The signs were bad from the start because it was decided that Johnson and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney would hold a joint press conference before their meeting rather than afterwards. The logic for that choreography was that they could answer every question by saying: 'Well, that's an important issue and exactly what we're here to talk about. We'll have a constructive discussion.'

Asked the same question post-meeting, they might have had to offer up some sense of how far they had got in reaching a consensus. But the press conference didn't go to plan as Coveney publicly demanded "parameters" for deciding the future of the border.

Asked by this reporter if he could give even a hypothetical vision of how a "frictionless border" might work, Johnson said the British government's view "is you can only really crack the problem" in the second phase of the talks.

Sources say things got even worse behind closed doors as Johnson told the Irish side: "From that press conference, they could only conclude that we don't agree."

"He didn't seem to realise that we were disagreeing on a very fundamental level," said one source.

During the meeting, civil servants repeatedly intervened to correct statements from the Foreign Secretary or insert "more diplomatic" language into his thinking. At the same time, sources say he is "very hard not to be OK with when you're around him".

"He's not rude. He's not sneering or looking down his nose. He's good company but his public utterances are the problem," one source said.

And that's why Dublin has decided to ignore them. It now listens for what May has to say, refusing to react to every thought that comes into Johnson's head.

Coveney is doing "a fraction" of the media requests he gets from the UK and when Johnson speaks, the plan is wait to hear what Downing Street has to say.

"When he made those comments during the week, they were torpedoed by No 10 within 12 hours. We could have been dragged into a diplomatic row but restraint is the order of the day," said one official.

And in a metaphor worthy of Johnson himself, they added: "If this was the supermarket and Boris was the child throwing the tantrum, Ireland is the parent that walked on".

Sunday Independent

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