Boris Johnson - Ireland's worst nightmare or the country's last best hope?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the best version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the 1971 film, and that’s because of Gene Wilder.
He plays Willy Wonka as both an eccentric confectionary enthusiast, but also a pretty significant threat to small children. Very entertaining to watch, but also kind of chilling.
Watching Boris Johnson’s victory speech from Ireland on Tuesday had the same compelling quality. Maybe you laughed jovially when he described himself and his Brexit agenda as “DUDE!” but then remembered shortly afterwards that the economic prosperity and social security of your country could now be disproportionately influenced by an egocentric Tory.
Many Irish politicians see the new Prime Minister as a bit of a blonde bombshell; in the dangerous, unpredictable and explosive sense of the word, rather than the sexy one. At the moment, parts of the Irish government are approaching Johnson’s premiership with a kind of fervent optimism. Some senior sources are clinging to Johnson’s track record of being pretty unpredictable, because they think it means he could surprise Ireland with what he does next. The harsh limits of truth and reality have never really been a problem for Boris Johnson, and there’s still a glimmer of hope in Dublin that he might succeed in spinning a version of the existing Withdrawal Agreement to his own base - despite the fact he spent so much time crapping all over it when his predecessor was trying to sell it.
“Look, who knows? He could be our worst nightmare, or he could be our best hope,” one government politician told JOE.
For other Irish politicians, things feel much bleaker. Some TDs genuinely believe that the new Prime Minister won’t mind plunging the UK into economic and social pandemonium by not bothering to secure a deal and just leaving the European Union without one.
“It does appear that Boris Johnson seems kind of ok with [a No Deal Brexit] - but it probably seems easy to take the short term pain if you’re very personally wealthy and have your job and your livelihood and your home - so it’s going to be the EU’s job to try to protect the British citizens,” one TD said.
Boris Johnson also has an incredible record of saying things about Ireland which can make it sound like his closest neighbour is either an entire mystery to him, or a nation he holds in real contempt. Jaws dropped after the Financial Times reported last week that Johnson had asked colleagues at the Foreign Office why Leo Varadkar wasn’t “called Murphy like all the rest of them.” The same piece suggested the new Conservative party leader thought he could get other major European leaders to bully the Taoisech into simply dropping the backstop - the key insurance policy designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland if no trade deal is agreed before the UK leaves. As recently as Tuesday, Irish government sources were insisting there is absolutely zero chance of this happening - which has been Ireland’s position since the backstop was first created.
Anxiety among Irish politicians also spiked when they read Johnson’s column for the Daily Telegraph on Sunday night, in which he compared using a “can-do” attitude to solve problems with the Irish border to the meticulously planned and engineered moon landing. Johnson wrote that “if they could use hand-knitted computer code to make a frictionless re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in 1969, we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border.”
And that’s before you consider the other greatest hits from Johnson’s back-catalogue of insults to Ireland, including the time he compared the Northern Irish border to crossing between two London boroughs, the time he dismissed concerns over the Irish border as “folly” that was “allowing the tail to wag the dog” in a recording released from a private dinner last summer, and the time he tried to woo the DUP by telling the unionist party conference that no British conservative government should sign up to a deal which included the backstop. Add to that his commitment to pursue a campaign led by backbench Tory MPs and British tabloids to protect former British soldiers from being prosecuted for killings during the Troubles, and you have a new Prime Minister who would make even the most dispassionate Irish observers a little bit nervous.
Since the Brexit referendum, sometimes it has felt like Irish Sea widened exponentially every day because of the massive chasm of misunderstanding that has developed between the UK and Ireland on issues surrounding Brexit. There’s already a huge amount of disdain towards Ireland, because the British press has painted the country as one that’s being deliberately difficult over the backstop, instead of one that’s trying to protect the entire island from some of the worst possible consequences of the UK leaving the EU. Mad things written and said about Ireland have included claiming Fine Gael are only backing the backstop to win over Sinn Féin, thinly veiled suggestions that the backstop is a plot to take back the six and The Sun publishing an editorial which told the Taoiseach to shut his gob and “grow up.”
It’s easy for those of us at this side of the Irish Sea to scoff and put that sort of rhetoric down to the Brits simply being At ItTM again, but some Irish politicians are worried that the portrayal of them in the British press is causing huge resentment towards Ireland, even from Remain voters. One senior politician told JOE that they believe that even British voters who wanted to stay in the European Union are starting to blame Ireland for not doing enough to help them avoid the unmitigated chaos of them crashing out of the EU with No Deal.
This suits Boris Johnson down to the ground. Some Irish politicians are speculating that things are going to get “a lot more heated” between Ireland and the UK now that Johnson is going to be in Number 10. Since Brexit transformed from a Tory fantasy before the referendum to the absolute farce we’ve all endured in the three years since, Ireland has been a convenient villain for people like Johnson to blame for all of the flaws in their grand plan to leave the European Union.
“It’s a handy excuse for him,” a government source said.
The Irish government would never publicly declare Johnson’s win as a bad result even if that’s what it believed it to be. Instead, Ireland has been calmly and clearly pointing out that as far as it is concerned, nothing has changed. Its position on Brexit remains the same regardless of who is in Number 10.
So what happens now? One politician said it is likely that whatever Johnson does next will probably be spun as a win over the awkward Irish “and we’ll just have to suck it up” - even if it isn’t true.
The state of affairs was illustrated pretty well by Bertie Ahern on RTÉ Radio 1 on Tuesday, when was asked what he would do if he were dealing with Johnson. The former Taoiseach suggested just rewriting what’s agreed so far so that it “might convince” Brexiteers that Johnson had delivered “something.”
“By stating what’s already agreed. I mean the problem is the detail, the huge detail that’s in the Withdrawal Agreement after three years’ negotiation is not understood in Britain,” Mr Ahern said.
Essentially, dumb things down and pretend they’ve changed - even if they really haven't.
Welcome to the Boris Johnson premiership - a world of pure imagination.