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