Boris Johnson is engaging in “Putinesque” tactics by using the Northern Ireland protocol bill to cause a populist row with Brussels when the EU is willing to compromise, Peter Hain, a former Northern Ireland secretary, said on Sunday.
Hain, who sits on a Lords subcommittee on the protocol, said Brussels appeared willing to compromise, but Johnson was more keen on engaging in a “parallel universe blame game”.
The Labour peer said the Northern Ireland protocol bill, which will override parts of the withdrawal treaty, is “almost the opposite” of what Johnson and his allies claim it to be, leading him to draw the comparison with Russian’s leader, Vladimir Putin.
In an article for the Guardian, Hain said: “There is something Putinesque about the government’s framing of its Northern Ireland Protocol Bill …
“Leave to one side that it trashes Britain’s reputation. That it was conceived in London as a solution to the Ulster Brexit conundrum. That it reneges on the withdrawal agreement Johnson and his lieutenant David Frost negotiated with the European Union. Never mind that it breaks an international treaty the UK signed. Forget very old-fashioned notions of truth, sticking to your word, trust, and obeying international law.
“Instead, focus upon its real purpose: dog-whistling to Johnson’s base by triggering a humongous row with the old villain Brussels because that worked so well in the 2016 Brexit referendum. And keep that going – if at all possible – all the way to the next general election.”
It comes as Micheál Martin, the Irish taoiseach, said he believed issues with the protocol could be solved with sustained negotiation, but Johnson’s bill to override it unilaterally was “economic vandalism”.
Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme, the taoiseach said the legislation was unacceptable and represented “unilateralism of the worst kind”.
“We accept fully that there are legitimate issues around the operation of the protocol, and we believe that with serious, sustained negotiations between the EU and the UK government, those issues could be resolved,” he said.
Both the UK and the EU have accused each other of being unwilling to unlock stalled negotiations.
But Hain said it was not the EU that had been gridlocking “negotiations to get rid of the protocol’s rough edges”, saying it was Johnson’s failure, along with first Frost and now Liz Truss, to negotiate seriously.
“The EU is far from blameless in all this mess, but it is very ready to make changes. It’s offered to do so, including a willingness to explore ‘red and green channels’ respectively for goods heading into the EU across the Irish border, and those confined to Northern Ireland alone. There’s a deal to be done,” he said.
“The question is: does Johnson really want one? Or does he prefer the parallel universe blame game that resonates with his supporters but won’t solve the problem, because to do so would irrevocably mean compromises like the ones he and Frost made in signing the protocol in the first place?”
He said that according to legal advice shown to the Lords committee, amendments to the protocol are possible within the withdrawal treaty and might be possible if trust is rebuilt with the EU.
Responding to Hain’s comparison of Johnson to Putin, a government
spokesperson said: “We reject these claims. We have been consistently clear about the objectives of this legislation – to bring forward reasonable, practical measures that fix the parts of the Northern Ireland protocol which are causing real problems and protect the balance of the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement in all its dimensions.
“The EU’s proposals do not fix these problems and in some cases are worse than what we have today. This bill provides an insurance mechanism to address the urgent situation in Northern Ireland in the absence of the EU being willing or able to do so.
“Our door remains open to reach a negotiated solution with the EU if
they are willing to change their mandate.”