John­son thought back­stop was a ‘fic­tion’

Brex­i­teer tells Pen­du­lum sum­mit UK risks be­ing ‘held to ran­som’ MP re­news re­jected idea that tech­nol­ogy can be used to mon­i­tor Bor­der

The Irish Times - Business - - BUSINESS THIS WEEK - MARK PAUL Busi­ness Af­fairs Cor­re­spon­dent

The Euro­pean Union and the UK should de­vise a back-up “stand­still agree­ment” to avoid tar­iffs on cross-bor­der goods trade in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Tory MP Boris John­son said in Dublin yes­ter­day.

Mr John­son, a prom­i­nent Brex­i­teer, told a busi­ness con­fer­ence that an agree­ment to main­tain “zero tar­iffs” could be in­tro­duced as an “in­terim mea­sure” to avoid re­vert­ing to World Trade Or­gan­i­sa­tion tar­iffs, which would oth­er­wise au­to­mat­i­cally kick in in the event of Britain crash­ing out of the EU.

He de­nied he is “hun­ger­ing or thirst­ing” for Britain to exit the EU in March with­out a for­mal with­drawal agree­ment.

Mr John­son also de­nied that a so-called “back­stop” agree­ment is re­quired to avoid a hard bor­der be­tween the Repub­lic and the North. He claimed the is­sue had been ex­ploited by EU politi­cians to keep the UK linked to the bloc.

Testy ex­change

The UK politi­cian spoke at the Pen­du­lum Sum­mit in Dublin, where he was in­ter­viewed on­stage by RTÉ broad­caster Bryan Dob­son in a testy ex­change.

Dob­son pressed Mr John­son on his ap­par­ent sup­port for a back­stop agree­ment in De­cem­ber 2017, when both the EU and UK de­clared the need for one as a back-up to avoid the pos­si­bil­ity of a hard bor­der in Ire­land.

Mr John­son said he be­lieved at the time that the De­cem­ber 2017 dec­la­ra­tion was a “con­ve­nient fic­tion” and “a form of words to be en­dured” to al­low talks progress, and that he never thought it should be im­ple­mented.

He said the Ir­ish back­stop, which would ul­ti­mately keep the Repub­lic and the North aligned on cus­toms rules for a pe­riod even if the rest of the UK’s rules even­tu­ally changed, risked his na­tion be­ing “held to ran­som”.

“If [the UK] wanted to di­verge [on cus­toms rules], un­less we sorted out the North­ern Ire­land Bor­der to the sat­is­fac­tion of other par­ties, we would be locked into the cus­toms union and sin­gle mar­ket, or forced to give up con­trol of North­ern Ire­land,” he said.

A hard bor­der in Ire­land would “never” be im­ple­mented in any cir­cum­stance, he claimed, be­fore call­ing for the revival of a pre­vi­ously re­jected idea that tech­nol­ogy, such as video cam­eras, could be used to mon­i­tor cross-Bor­der trade.

“No­body wants a hard bor­der. No­body will im­ple­ment it. We should not aban­don at­tempts to find a tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tion with­out even try­ing.”

When told that, un­der trad­ing rules, ve­hi­cles car­ry­ing goods over the Bor­der would have to be phys­i­cally checked in a no-deal sce­nario, he sug­gested the UK should call the EU’s and the State’s bluff.

“That’s a mat­ter for Ire­land, if you were to choose for ev­ery lorry to be in­ter­rupted and checked,” he said, be­fore ex­it­ing the stage to the tune of the 1980s song Fi­nal Count­down by the band Europe.

Mr John­son gave a pre­sen­ta­tion on the theme of “op­por­tu­nity in un­cer­tainty” at Pen­du­lum. In his speech, he sug­gested politi­cians are cur­rently afraid of risk, and he called on the UK and the State to work to­gether and to be “bold and brave”.

We should not aban­don at­tempts to find a tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tion

There is usu­ally a Bono an­gle to sto­ries about ma­jor gath­er­ings in Ire­land, and the Pen­du­lum Sum­mit is no dif­fer­ent. This one says much about how busi­ness is­sues have hopped the fence from cultural ob­scu­rity to main­stream en­ter­tain­ment.

Pen­du­lum, a chicken soup for the busi­ness soul-style mo­ti­va­tional jam­boree at the Con­ven­tion Cen­tre Dublin (CCD), kicked off on Wednesday morn­ing with a lively pre­sen­ta­tion by Erik Wahl, a US speed painter and graf­fiti artist who also preaches the power of cre­ativ­ity.

As the up­lift­ing strains of U2’s Beau­ti­ful Day jolted the 3,000-strong crowd like a dou­ble espresso at dawn, Wahl quickly dashed off an im­pres­sive tech­ni­colour like­ness of the band’s front­man on a large can­vas on­stage. He then launched into his slick ser­mon, ex­hort­ing the crowd to be art­ful in their busi­ness and per­sonal lives.

Wahl then pro­duced an en­ve­lope of Fear Fac­tor in­struc­tions, ap­ing the mock-sadis­tic dare game show, and en­tered the crowd in search of a vol­un­teer. As most of the au­di­ence silently screamed don’t pick me! he set­tled on Bron­agh, who looked a typ­i­cal young ex­ec­u­tive. Late 20s, or maybe early 30s. Re­li­able.

Poor Bron­agh wasn’t sure about this craic at all, at all. But gamely, she ac­cepted Wahl’s chal­lenge and headed for the stage, al­beit with the trudg­ing gait of a game show con­tes­tant who had just won a free root-canal op­er­a­tion.

This be­ing a show about busi­ness and lead­er­ship and all that jazz, Wahl gave her the op­tion of “del­e­gat­ing” her mys­te­ri­ous Fear Fac­tor role to some­one else. She took a deep breath, sum­moned her pluck and chose to per­se­vere her­self. Go Bron­agh! Every­body was on her side.

Fish­bowl of taran­tu­las

How re­lieved she was when she opened the en­ve­lope to find that, in­stead of a hor­rific de­mand that she place her head in a fish­bowl of taran­tu­las or go on a din­ner date with Peter Casey, she was to re­ceive the Bono por­trait for her brav­ery.

Bron­agh bounced back to her seat, her face a pic­ture of joy. The au­di­ence cheered. Wahl faced the crowd and held out his hands, like Moses on a beach about to part a sea of M&S suits and pen­cil skirts.

You see, folks! His mes­sage was clear: Bron­agh had ban­ished her fear, taken a cal­cu­lated risk and got the req­ui­site re­ward. Copy her and you will suc­ceed.

The old risk-and-re­ward trope is stan­dard busi­ness fare. Ev­ery poor sod with a com­merce de­gree had to sit through hours of en­ter­prise lec­tures on this sort of stuff: about how en­trepreneurs and busi­ness lead­ers are ir­re­press­ible fonts of gump­tion, but that’s why they have all the money.

Yet this wasn’t some dusty lec­ture hall, or an Ibec sem­i­nar, or a Saturday af­ter­noon of self-con­grat­u­la­tion at the golf club­house. This was busi­ness as pure en­ter­tain­ment, in front of an en­rap­tured crowd pay­ing €800 a head for the priv­i­lege. This was show­busi­ness, in ev­ery sense. This is post-re­cov­ery Ire­land.

Wahl faced the crowd and held out his hands, like Moses on a beach about to part a sea of M&S suits and pen­cil skirts

The Cal­i­for­nian Wahl didn’t look like a tra­di­tional busi­ness guru, with his black trilby hat, chinny beard and black hoodie-skinny jeans combo. With the paint on his hands, he looked like he could have just re­turned from spray­ing a Che Gue­vara mu­ral on the gable end of De­nis O’Brien’s house.

But in our mod­ern, con­fi­dent, dig­i­tally-re­mas­tered eco­nomic era, the likes of Wahl could be a worker from any com­pany. He could be a pro­cure­ment man­ager or ac­count ex­ec­u­tive, or Erik from ac­counts, or even your boss on his day off.

Busi­ness in the dig­i­tal age has changed to be­come less for­mal and more cul­tur­ally at­tuned, and Ire­land has piv­oted with it. Per­haps it is the in evitable con­se­quence of hav­ing Dublin as Sil­i­con Val­ley’s Euro­pean hol­i­day home.

As the busi­ness beat­nik Wahl preached to the masses at the CCD in the dock­lands, bat­tal­ions of peo­ple just like him sold ads or en­gi­neered so­lu­tions to prob­lems di­rectly across the river in the of­fices of com­pa­nies such as Google and Face­book, or at Ire­land’s semi-in­dige­nous me-too tech giant: Stripe.

Wahl’s mo­ti­va­tional speech was fol­lowed by an­other from Le­in­ster rugby coach Stu­art Lan­caster. Again, how fit­ting. As this State has marched the road to pros­per­ity, with busi­ness events as cultural ref­er­ence points and ac­cept­able en­ter­tain­ment, rugby has marched ev­ery step of the way with it.

When the soc­cer crowd was in the as­cen­dancy – Euro 88, Italia 90 and times such as that – the econ­omy was in a heap. But no­body cared about busi­ness is­sues then any­way. It wasn’t cultural en­ter­tain­ment. It was for posh peo­ple.

Frankie Shea­han

If some en­ter­pris­ing for­mer rugby star such as the Pen­du­lum founder Frankie Shea­han had tried to launch a busi­ness mo­ti­va­tional con­fer­ence in the north in­ner city back then, he would have been scorned or even lynched, beaten to a pulp by lads armed with bat­tered sausages and wear­ing green Opel jer­seys.

The first time the State got wealthy, dur­ing the last boom, we lost our heads and ended up cul­tur­ally ven­er­at­ing celebrity chefs. Then we lost all the money, and celebrity econ­o­mists took over. We needed them to tell us how poor we had be­come, and what a sub­or­di­nated bond was. That was the start of it. Then along came busi­ness tele­vi­sion shows like Dragons’ Den (Seán Gal­lagher and Gavin Duffy were in the crowd at Pen­du­lum) and The Ap­pren­tice, and busi­ness went main­stream and never looked back.

The econ­omy is now chug­ging along nicely on dig­i­tal oil money. Mean­while, re­cent ref­er­en­dum votes show that Ir­ish so­ci­ety has lib­er­alised al­most as much as our trade poli­cies. They seem like strange, al­most coun­ter­in­tu­itive bed­fel­lows: Ire­land’s so­cial swing to the left, just as every­body be­comes in­ter­ested in the econ­omy and busi­ness, and com­pa­nies cot­ton on to cul­ture and vice versa. But there you have it. That’s mod­ern life, and we must live it and en­joy what we can.

Some things never change, though. Whatever is hap­pen­ing, there will al­ways be a nod thrown to Bono. He’ll be about the place for­ever.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: NICK BRAD­SHAW

Boris John­son at the Pen­du­lum con­fer­ence in the Con­ven­tion Cen­tre Dublin where the Con­ser­va­tive MP spoke on the theme of “op­por­tu­nity in un­cer­tainty”.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: CONOR MCCABE PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

US speed painter and graf­fiti artist Erik Wahl with his im­pres­sive tech­ni­colour like­ness of U2 front­man Bono on a large can­vas on­stage at the Pen­du­lum Sum­mit

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