In Depth

Boris Johnson likens Irish border issue to congestion charge - and other gaffes

Foreign Secretary can add Ireland to a list of nations he’s offended over the years

Boris Johnson has been heavily criticised for drawing parallels between the Irish border and London boroughs.

During an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, the Foreign Secretary likened the Irish border challenge to the challenge of trying to enact the city’s congestion charge.

“There’s no border between Islington, Camden and Westminster, but when I was mayor of London we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from people travelling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks,” Johnson said.

“There are all sorts of arrangements. I think it’s a very relevant comparison, there is scope for pre-booking, electronic checks.” 

The problem Johnson seems to be missing is that “border controls also involve checks on goods, and rules of origin regulations,” says The Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow.

“A Camden dairy farmer transporting thousands of gallons of milk every day to a cheese factory in Westminster would not have to worry about these concerns, but in Ireland they do.”

Open Britain, which is campaigning for a soft Brexit, has put out a statement saying: “To compare the border between two sovereign states, the UK and the Republic of Ireland, to the boundaries between different London boroughs is not only patently ridiculous but also shows staggering insensitivity and a stupefying ignorance of a conflict in which over 3,000 people died between 1969 and the signing of the Good Friday agreement.”

The Labour party has dismissed his comments as “typically facile and tactless” – and it’s certainly true that the Foreign Secretary has made numerous gaffes involving other countries and cultures.

Here are six of his best-known gaffes:

Maori Mania

Boris Johnson risked a touch of his trademark non-PC humour on an official visit to New Zealand by joking that a traditional Maori greeting “might be misinterpreted in a pub in Glasgow”.

The Foreign Secretary was in the scenic tourist town of Kaikoura on the country’s South Island, where two people died last November in a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, when he made the remark. After paying tribute to residents who took in stranded tourists after the quake, Johnson thanked locals for teaching him the “hongi” – a traditional Maori greeting in which both parties press their noses and foreheads together.

“I think it’s a beautiful form of introduction, though it might be misinterpreted in a pub in Glasgow,” Johnson joked, “in a reference to a ‘Glasgow kiss’, or head butt,” says the Daily Telegraph.

Fortunately for Anglo-New Zealand relations, he appeared to get away with it this time. His comment drew laughter from the audience.

US President Barack Obama

Earlier this year, Johnson provoked a backlash by wondering in The Sun whether the “part-Kenyan president” had removed a bust of Churchill from the White House because of his "ancestral dislike of the British empire".

Johnson was “hounded” on Twitter for the remarks, but unfairly so, according to Brendan O’Neill, his colleague at The Spectator. The politician had only written the truth, he said, Obama does have Kenyan ancestry and the bust was removed from the Oval Office.

The Palestinian territories

Johnson was forced to cut short a trip to Palestine late last year after making pro-Israel comments during a trip to the Middle East. A meeting with a Palestinian youth group was cancelled over what they called his “inaccurate, misinformed and disrespectful remarks” about a boycott on Israeli goods, which the then London mayor made in Israel just before he travelled to the state, The Guardian reported.

Johnson told an audience in Tel Aviv that a UK boycott was “completely crazy” and supported only by “corduroy-jacketed, snaggletoothed, lefty academics”.

Toki Sekiguchi, aged ten

Last autumn, while visiting Tokyo, Johnson found himself apologising to Japanese schoolboy Toki Sekiguchi after he “bulldozed” him to the ground in what was supposed to be a friendly game of street rugby.

Nine years earlier, Johnson head-butted the German international Maurizio Gaudino during a charity football match, while in 2015, he tripped a small child while playing football in London. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey

This April, Johnson entered a competition in The Spectator to write an obscene and defamatory limerick about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to make a point about freedom of speech.

He won with five lines, which did not actually name Erdogan, but told the story of a “young fellow from Ankara” who made love to a goat. What Johnson did with the £1,000 cash prize hasn’t revealed.

The entire continent of Africa

In a 2002 column for The Spectator, Johnson said of Africa: “The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that [the British] were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”

Defending British colonialists from the charge of importing unsuitable crops, he added: “If left to their own devices, the natives would rely on nothing but the instant carbohydrate gratification of the plantain.”

Johnson quoted an un-named “British official” as telling him: “I’ve been in Africa for ages and there’s one thing I just don’t get. Why are they so brutal to each other? We may treat them like children, but it’s not because of us that they behave like the children in Lord of the Flies.”

The politician concluded: “The best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction; on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty.”

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