Ben Lowry: It is a massive failure of civic unionism that the backstop got so far with so little criticism

Nigel Dodds MP, DUP leader at Westminster, speaking in the House of Commons alongside party colleagues after an amendment to ditch the backstop, was backed by MPs with DUP votes on January 29 2019. Ben Lowry writes: "Whether the DUP was wise to support Brexit is debatable but it was clearly right to oppose the backstop"
Nigel Dodds MP, DUP leader at Westminster, speaking in the House of Commons alongside party colleagues after an amendment to ditch the backstop, was backed by MPs with DUP votes on January 29 2019. Ben Lowry writes: "Whether the DUP was wise to support Brexit is debatable but it was clearly right to oppose the backstop"

If the Irish border backstop goes through, and I think it still might despite events this week, it will one day be seen as one of the biggest failures of civic unionism in the history of Northern Ireland.

To this day, there is an attitude in the more moderate reaches of unionism that the backstop is not a big deal, or that the DUP opposition to it is unreasonable or not genuine.

There has been talk that the party needs a fig leaf to give the measure its support.

Whatever criticism can be levelled at the DUP in recent years (and it is arguable that backing Brexit with minimal dissent was a colossal unionist-wide misjudgment) the party’s opposition to the backstop is genuine, total and appropriate.

To understand why, it is necessary to address a central myth surrounding the backstop, in which Irish-EU intransigence has been confused with supposed British incompetence.

The erroneous implication is this: that the UK has been too inept and confused to come up with a workable solution to the border to the satisfaction of a competent, reasonable and patient Ireland-EU, hence the need for the backstop to avoid a hard border.

Still, 14 months after the backstop was agreed at the end of 2017, that line is trotted out, most recently on BBC Radio Four yesterday by Ireland’s former Europe minister Helen McEntee. She said no such satisfactory solution had been put forward by the UK.

But this is utterly misleading, because it implies that the Ireland-EU are open to such a solution. They are not. Indeed, Ms McEntee in effect reiterated that they are not open to a solution other than rules convergence. It would not matter if the was unanimous agreement by international customs figures that such a technological solution was possible to avoid border checks, Dublin would reject it.

Ireland has made clear that it will only accept regulatory and customs alignment as the solution.

How many times does this need to be repeated for it to be widely understood? Yet Irish ministers rarely get pressure in broadcasts on the massive nature of their demand.

Simon Coveney explained their position in Belfast in November 2017, a month before the backstop. It did not matter where the checks where, he said, Dublin would reject divergence.

I would go further: it does not matter if both sides, EU and UK agree never to have checks, Ireland will not accept different trade rules in the two parts of the island.

Leo Varadkar recently said that in the event of ‘no deal’ the UK and Ireland would have to agree full alignment between themselves.

In other words, the opposition in Dublin is opposition to the fact of divergence at the land border, not the type of checks or the level of intrusion that they bring.

This is where the failure of ‘civic unionism’ comes in.

For the Alliance Party to support the backstop, being agnostic on the Union and pro EU, makes sense. But some people who still designate themselves as unionist, in business and commentary and elsewhere, have actually accepted the UK climbdown on the backstop (for a long while, London put up the pretence that it would resist such full alignment, which necessarily would mean a border in the Irish Sea, whether visible or seamless).

So some unionists are in effect backing the notion that trade policy as it relates to Northern Ireland will be outside of UK control.

They have also abjectly failed to challenge this idea that Ireland and the EU hope a backstop will not be needed. This is misleading to the point of being nonsense. Once the backstop becomes law via a Withdrawal Agreement, there is not a possibility, not a chance, not a prospect that Dublin will ever accept a future UK-EU relationship that has less than full NI-EU alignment.

We will have lost control of that part of sovereignty.

The failure of ‘civic unionism’ is massive but by no means universal. Lords Trimble and Bew and Professor Graham Gudgin have been distinguished voices against this madness. The commentator Owen Polley spelt out the implications of such a border in the Irish Sea before the backstop was even agreed (see links below).

Lord Bew’s intervention this week, in a Policy Exchange paper reproduced in this newspaper, explained that the backstop actually subverts the Belfast Agreement.

His crucial, but easy to comprehend, essay is on our website.

Let us hope that after this week the backstop is dead, as Dr Gudgin says, but I fear a fudge.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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