Details about the Brexit negotiations are baffling.
And the issue of the so-called ‘backstop’ for Northern Ireland – which is at the heart of current wrangling between Number 10 and Brussels is no exception.
For example Jim Nicholson, the veteran UUP MEP, has said that the issue is serious enough that it could turn into a kind of latter-day Anglo-Irish Agreement “betrayal” for Northern Ireland.
Here is a timeline of how the issue has unfolded, quoting directly from the source documents.
• On December 8, the UK government and EU agreed a joint report which contains this clause, at paragraph 49: “In the absence of agreed solutions, the UK will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”
The following paragraph, number 50, went on to add: “In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the UK will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate... In all circumstances, the UK will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market.”
• On February 28, the European Commission set out its own idea of a legally-binding draft withdrawal agreement.
Among other things, it said that “a common regulatory area comprising the Union and the UK in respect of Northern Ireland” would be established, and that Northern Ireland “shall be considered to be part of the customs territory” of the EU.
It said that this would apply unless the UK and EU came up with a further deal “addressing the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, avoiding a hard border and protecting the 1998 Agreement in all its dimensions”.
• In words which have been quoted innumerable times ever since, Theresa May told MPs that same day in the House of Commons that this vision would “undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea, and no UK Prime Minister could ever agree to it”.
• On Monday, March 19, a new draft of the would-be withdrawal agreement was published, which said the negotiators agree that a legally operative version of the “backstop” solution for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, in line with paragraph 49 of the Joint Report, “should be agreed as part of the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement, to apply unless and until another solution is found”.
It did not similar mention paragaraph 50, which protects the Northern Ireland-Great Britain union.
It went on to add: “The negotiators have reached agreement on some elements of the draft Protocol [on Ireland/Northern Ireland].
“They further agree that the full set of issues related to avoiding a hard border covered in the draft reflect those that need to be addressed in any solution.
“There is as yet no agreement on the right operational approach, but the negotiators agree to engage urgently in the process of examination of all relevant matters announced on 14 March and now under way.”
• A draft withdrawal agreement is set to be finalised by October.
• Speaking in the House of Commons on March 21, Nigel Dodds said “can the minister at the NIO confirm that it remains the government’s firm position that the backstop arrangement, so called, as proposed by the European Commission, is something that no British PM or government could ever agree to?”
Responding, Northern Ireland Office minister Shailesh Vara said: “The Prime Minister has made her views absolutely clear on that. The economic and constitutional integrity of our country will not be harmed.”
Mr Dodds said his response “debunks the notion that as a result of the transition arrangements that somehow the government reneged on that particular pledge”.
This has not calmed the fears of some unionists.