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Boris Johnson Accused Of Being Unrealistic About Brexit Risk Of Irish Border

4 min read

Boris Johnson and Lord Frost have not yet “faced up to the reality” their version of Brexit must lead to a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, according to Theresa May’s former chief of staff.

Gavin Barwell, who was a senior member of Theresa May's government when Brexit negotiations began, said if Britain is to end up with “complete control of its own regulatory policy” then that is the inevitable consequence.

He was speaking at the Institute for Government this morning after Frost, the Brexit minister, gave a speech yesterday in which he proposed a new protocol for Northern Ireland, arguing existing arrangements have lost consent and risk inflaming sectarian tensions.

"I would argue that we've still not faced up to the reality, if you want Britain – as David Frost and Boris Johnson do – to be an independent country with complete control of its own regulatory policy, then the consequence of that is a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland," he said. 

While Barwell was critical of Frost's speech, he noted that was not an endorsement of the current situation in Northern Ireland, where there have been complications with trade across the Irish Sea since the beginning of the year, and deadlock has ensued over how to resolve the issue. 

“I’m not saying that the current situation in Northern Ireland should stay," he said. "I don't like the situation of the Northern Ireland protocol."

He defended efforts by May's government to ensure that any future trade deal with the EU would not involve Northern Ireland being treated differently to the UK – which is unacceptable to unionists in the province, and is considered to be the main issue with the existing Protocol –  but said Johnson must stick to the terms of the deal he agreed to.

“Theresa [May] fought tooth and nail to knock the EU off this idea of having a Northern Ireland-only arrangement, but my problem is that if you agree something and you fight an election saying what a fantastic deal this is, and then almost immediately afterwards you start trying to unpick the thing, the danger is the people you're negotiating with think we didn't agree in good faith in the first place,” Barwell explained.

"My fear is that the perspective that David set out yesterday, which is basically the entire thing has to be ripped up and you have to accept our version of it, has no chance of success."

Barwell struck a milder tone at this morning's IFG event than he did in his immediate response to Frost's Lisbon speech. 

“The absolute state of David Frost trashing the deal he negotiated, and hailed as a triumph, despite many, yours truly included, warning it was a dud," Barwell tweeted on Tuesday night. 

"And worse, now using it to further undermine our relationship with some of our closest friends in an increasingly dangerous world.”

Later today Frost's opposite number, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, will detail what the EU has described as "very far-reaching" plans to dramatically reduce the number of checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

It is hoped the move will end months of wrangling between Johnson's government and Brussels ahead of another round of talks expected to take place into November.

Following Frost’s speech, Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, suggested Downing Street had always intended to “ditch” the protocol as originally agreed, and had agreed to it because it was politically expedient ahead of the 2019 general election.

Ireland's former taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who negotiated the agreement with Johnson at a meeting on the Wirral in October 2019, called the comments “very alarming” for suggesting the UK government acted in bad faith.

“That message needs to be heard around the world, because if the British government doesn’t honour its agreements, doesn’t adhere to treaties it signs, that must apply to everyone else too”, he said.

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