UK Parliament faces shutdown after Johnson's failure in Ireland

The UK prime minister is running out of options after Ireland's leader rebuffs any suggestion of no border 'backstop'.

    UK Parliament faces shutdown after Johnson's failure in Ireland
    Boris Johnson reacts as Ireland's Taoiseach Leo Varadkar dashes any hopes of ditching the 'Irish backstop' [Phil Noble/Reuters]

    The Parliament of the United Kingdom is set to shut down for five weeks on Monday after Prime Minister Boris Johnson's talks with his Irish counterpart failed to make any headway on the issue at the heart of Brexit battles.

    Johnson was in the Irish capital, Dublin, for talks with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar over the crucial issue of the "Irish backstop".

    Varadkar told Johnson he must make specific proposals on the future of the Irish border if there is to be any hope of averting a "no-deal" Brexit, saying Ireland cannot rely on simple promises. 

    "The people of this island, north and south, need to know that their livelihoods, their security, and their sense of identity will not be put at risk as a consequence of a hard Brexit," Varadkar told Johnson.

    "The stakes are high... We must protect peace on the island and the burgeoning success of the all-island economy."

    The prime minister said he "wants to get a deal" with the European Union on the divorce and was not worried about UK MPs' moves to block a no-deal Brexit.

    "I'm absolutely undaunted by whatever may take place in parliament," Johnson said. "We must get Brexit done because the UK must come out on October 31 or else I fear that permanent damage will be done to confidence in our democracy in the UK."

    Drawing a line

    It remains unclear how Johnson proposes to leave the EU without creating a border between Northern Ireland - which is a part of the UK - and the Republic of Ireland, which remains an EU member.

    What is 'Irish backstop'?  

    It is a contingency plan in the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the European Commission and the administration of Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May, to avoid the possibility of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

    It states that Northern Ireland should remain in regulatory alignment - following established standards for health, safety, food and so forth - with the EU until another solution becomes apparent.

    This has proven unpopular, as it means that either the rest of the UK must also remain in alignment with the EU, therefore being bound to it without any say in it, or Northern Ireland will be set aside from the rest of the UK, being treated much like the Republic of Ireland. Critics say this would be a loss of the UK's national sovereignty, a step towards Irish reunification, and therefore politically unacceptable.

     

    "Boris says 'I've got lots and lots of ideas', but he won't tell anyone what they are," said Al Jazeera's Laurence Lee, reporting from London.

    "Before [prominent cabinet member] Amber Rudd resigned at the weekend, she asked what the plans were, and was reportedly given one piece of A4 paper in response.

    "I think the administration is concerned that if disclosed even to senior Conservatives, some of those ideas they say they have might leak out - but to the untrained eye, and to the European side, it seems like they have no ideas at all."

    Johnson's hands have been tied by his own actions in the past week; expelling a "rebel alliance" of Conservative MPs from the party has blown apart any chances he may have had of finding any form of governing majority in the House of Commons.

    On Monday, trade union leaders were the latest to criticise the prime minister as a "lame duck" and a "coward".

    "The prime minister acts like he's the clown prince of Downing Street but the last thing we need now is BoJo the clown in charge - and Brexit isn't a game," Trades Union Congress General Secretary Frances O'Grady said in a speech.

    Shutting down Parliament

    Officials said on Monday morning the planned suspension of Parliament will come into force from Monday evening.

    The suspension for an unusually long time in the run-up to the Brexit deadline of October 31 sparked fury among politicians of all stripes, as well as among the public. Johnson maintained it was necessary in order to introduce a new domestic political agenda, while an overwhelming majority of parliamentarians, political analysts, media figures, academics, administrators and more agreed it was an attempt to suppress any effort to block a "no-deal" withdrawal from the EU.

    But Johnson's plan backfired spectacularly last week, with MPs taking control of Parliament and agreeing on legislation that mandated the prime minister to seek an extension to the Brexit deadline if no deal is reached.

    Johnson responded he would rather "die in a ditch" than do so, and reports over the weekend suggested he and his advisers were considering simply breaking the law in order to get their way.

    Leaked WhatsApp conversations on Sunday showed Justice Secretary Robert Buckland having to warn Conservative MPs that the government was expected to observe the rule of law.

    Struggling to get an election

    Johnson will on Monday evening try again, and in all likelihood, fail again, to call a snap election as a solution to the impasse in which he finds himself. 

    Given the prime minister's seeming willingness to ignore the law, opposition parties - who themselves want an election - do not trust Johnson not to change any suggested date for the nation going to the polls in order to run down the clock to force through a "no-deal" Brexit.

    "We were absolutely rock-solid on rejecting out-of-hand Boris Johnson's attempt to cut and run with a general election," the Liberal Democrats' Tom Brake told the PA news agency.

    "There's absolutely no way we will let him do that before he's secured an extension. We've put in place all of the countermeasures that we think might be necessary depending on what tricks and subterfuge that Boris Johnson may still have to hand or seek to deploy."

    Labour, the principal opposition, and Scottish and Welsh nationalists agreed, saying once the threat of no-deal was off the table they would move for an early election.

    "Assuming he loses that [snap election] vote tonight and Parliament is suspended, it automatically follows there can't be an election in October," said Al Jazeera's Lee. 

    "The question then remains: can he get a deal at the European Council summit on October 17 and, if not, will he go to them, as the law mandates him to, to ask for an extension to delay Britain's departure from the EU.

    "Frankly, he's probably looking forward to Parliament not being there for five weeks - so he doesn't have to get a kicking every time he turns up to speak."

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies