“THERE will be no border down the Irish Sea,” declared Boris Johnson in August 2020, adding: “Over my dead body.” But, of course, there is one and lightning didn’t strike.

Ahead of the Brexit deal, the imperative was, understandably, to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic because of the threat of violence if one materialised.

While the Minister for the Union sought, at best, to minimise issues surrounding the Protocol, and at worst, to deceive people about them, it seemed clear his overriding priority was to get Brexit done with his “oven-ready deal” and only later sort out the uncooked bit: the NI bugbear.

He hoped, having all but completed the deal, Brussels and Dublin would be wary of prolonging the agonies of the Brexit psychodrama and become more compliant to the UK Government’s terms even if this involved at some later point reneging on the Protocol. How wrong he was.

Self-awareness is always an admirable trait in a politician; sadly, it’s all too often absent. Honesty is an even more admirable one.

READ MORE: Dead sea birds... yet another pandemic wake-up call

Johnson has been in Downing Street for almost three years but is now making enemies, at home and abroad, at a rate of knots; which will do neither him nor the country any good. Trust and respect are the bases of all good relationships.

While Johnson is winning plaudits for his leading role in defending Ukraine, he’s attracting brickbats for alienating relations with the EU.

In December, Emmanuel Macron, now the bloc’s lead advocate, aired his view of Johnson, explaining how things usually began cordially but then the PM would “stick it to us”. The French President added: “It’s very sad to see a great country, with which we could do so much, led by a clown. Johnson has the attitude of a knucklehead.”

This week, Olaf Scholz, the urbane German Chancellor, with a deal of understatement, reacted to the publication of the Government’s long-threatened Protocol Bill to “fix parts” of the current set-up to “restore stability and protect the Belfast Agreement”.

Scholz described the UK Government’s unilateralism as “very regrettable” and “unjustified” because it ran counter to “all the agreements between the EU and Britain”.

Micheal Martin, Ireland’s premier, pulled no punches, branding the UK Government’s move “reckless,” and an “assault on an international agreement" while his colleague, Simon Coveney, warned it marked a “new low in British-Irish relations”.

However, Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, insisted London had acted “in good faith” in the UK/EU talks but, ultimately, Brussels simply wouldn’t change the text and so they had hit a “dead end”. Unilateralism was the only way.

While governments are extremely reluctant to release legal advice, Whitehall was happy to do so in this case given the bubbling political row.

It explained, under international law, the “doctrine of necessity” provided a clear justification for the “non-performance of international obligations” under exceptional circumstances, which was now the case in NI because the Protocol was blocking the formation of a new power-sharing executive at Stormont.

Brussels disagreed. Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice-president, said the UK Government had set out to “unilaterally break international law” with “no legal or political justification”.

Intriguingly, however, the fresh legal action the Commission launched against London this week is not about the bill but over past failures on UK import checks.

Sefcovic suggested legal action against the draft legislation would only happen if it became law, which could be 18 months away; enough time to reach a compromise.

At the heart of the new bill is having green lanes for GB/NI trade, thus eliminating virtually all form-filling, and red lanes for GB/IR trade via NI.

Yet Brussels pointed out how last autumn it had proposed just such a system; an “express lane” for goods travelling between GB and NI, reducing checks on a range of goods by 80%. One EU admitted: “Effectively, we are talking about the same thing.”

Sefcovic, in an echo of Johnson’s Brexit rhetoric, quipped that the Commission had “oven-ready” pro-posals to resolve the majority of the difficulties by reducing red tape on customs declarations.

And yet Whitehall has rejected Brussels’ proposals, arguing that they fail to address the Protocol’s central problems and would led to more not fewer checks than under the present 'grace period' system.

In response, Brussels pointed out that the UK Government’s desire to have a dual regulatory regime – enabling goods produced to both UK and EU standards to circulate in NI – would result in a "monstrous" amount of paperwork.

Amid this spat, Johnson appeared to suggest his proposed changes were “relatively trivial” and “not a big deal”. Which was not only treating our European partners as fools but also the British public.

Just as in Scotland, in NI constitutional politics infects everything.

Whatever the reasons are as to why we arrived here over the Protocol, the reality is the current impasse means there is no power-sharing Executive and there is a threat to the Belfast Agreement because embedded in the peace accord’s foundation stone is mutual respect between, and consent from, both communities.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, explained how the Protocol undermined this "cross-community consensus on which the political institutions operate". He added: “Parliament can either choose to go forward with the [Belfast] Agreement and the political institutions and stability in NI or the Protocol. But it can't have both.”

In contrast, a majority of Assembly members at Stormont signed a letter to Johnson, making clear they opposed his planned changes to the Protocol. Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill branded them “disgraceful and utterly reckless”.

Neither London nor Brussels wants a trade war and, as ever with NI, there is so much to be gained through co-operation and compromise and so much to be lost through intransigence and confrontation.

Politics there often seems like a vertical slope but, as we have seen in the past, with determination it can eventually be scaled. The politicians need to seriously re-engage because we all know where a prolonged political vacuum can lead to.