It sometimes feels like the ‘Irish backstop’ has been with us forever.
This term has been overused so badly that it’s easy to forget what it really means. There’s been a torrent of propaganda promoting the EU’s ‘insurance policy’, but where did it come from and what does it consist of?
The backstop started out as so-called ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland. After the UK voted for Brexit, nationalists, the Dublin government and die hard remainers demanded that the province stay in the single market and customs union, to protect our links with the Republic of Ireland, even if the rest of the country left.
As negotiations got under way, Brussels adopted this position, claiming that it was the only way to prevent a ‘hard border’ on the island of Ireland. The EU was making a powerful statement that it would show solidarity with Dublin and exact a price from Britain, even if it meant challenging UK sovereignty and reopening a deadly territorial dispute.
The language shifted and softened as talks progressed, but the core idea remained the same. ‘Special status’ became ‘the backstop’ and eventually the Northern Ireland Protocol in Theresa May’s Draft Withdrawal Agreement.
May claimed that her deal was a UK-wide arrangement, representing a concession by Brussels, and journalists often assert that it requires the whole country to remain in the EU customs union, but the text of the Withdrawal Agreement doesn’t support either interpretation.
The NI protocol establishes a ‘joint customs territory’ made up of the customs territory of the UK and the customs territory of the EU. If the backstop comes into force, Northern Ireland will leave the UK customs territory, but remain part of the EU customs union.
The distinction is important. The attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, advised Theresa May’s cabinet that companies from Great Britain would have to fill in customs declarations for shipments to Northern Ireland. From the EU’s perspective, goods arriving here from the rest of the UK would be treated as imports into its territory from a ‘third country’.
Even if Great Britain leaves the joint customs territory, Northern Ireland must remain part of the customs union, unless ‘alternative arrangements’ for the land border with the south are agreed with Brussels.
The situation is similar for product regulations. The protocol requires Northern Ireland to adhere indefinitely to vast swathes of single market rules, while the rest of the UK has a commitment to align with single market requirements that a future government, or even this government, could decide to break.
Some commentators have suggested that a ‘Northern Ireland only backstop’ might be the best way to avoid a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Yet, there’s already very little to stop the government pulling out of the UK-wide parts of the Withdrawal Agreement and operating only the aspects that apply here.
The notion that the backstop protects the Belfast Agreement has also taken hold with very little evidence. After the referendum, the Supreme Court quickly ruled that the accord applied to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK rather than our membership of the EU.
The agreement contained provisions about dismantling security installations at the frontier, that were necessary because of the terrorist threat, but it had nothing to say about a hard border, a soft border or the issues around trade and customs that have been linked to it.
Boris Johnson recently wrote to Donald Tusk, claiming that it is the backstop that is contrary to the Belfast Agreement. His letter was met with fury, but at least he based his assertion on a reading of the text. The three-stranded approach carefully defined the responsibilities of Stormont, the government and all-Ireland bodies, and the Withdrawal Agreement threatens to upend that balance.
On this side of the Irish Sea, propaganda in favour of the backstop has been relentless from the media, Theresa May’s government, Leo Varadkar’s government, nationalists and pro-EU campaigners. The focus has been almost exclusively on the potential effects of a ‘hard border’ in Ireland, while there has scarcely been any analysis of the possible impact of internal barriers on UK trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or the political consequences of giving Brussels authority over the province.
Last week, a narrow majority of MLAs from nationalist parties, Alliance and the Greens filled a few more empty hours by writing to Donald Tusk, demanding that he defend the backstop. They could not persuade a single unionist to sign the letter.
Power-sharing is supposed to be based on important decisions about Northern Ireland’s future being taken on a cross-community basis. It’s amazingly how quickly nationalists and their anti-UK allies jettisoned that principle, as soon as they could make a doubtful claim to speak for a majority.
Unionists are not being obstinate or unreasonable by opposing the backstop. Nobody who genuinely values the Union could feel comfortable with its provisions, whatever their views on Brexit.
The backstop, just like special status, was always intended to ensure that any new political and economic barriers fell between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, rather than along the existing border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It was driven by nationalists’ need to pretend that the frontier doesn’t exist.
The backstop is not an insurance policy. It’s a direct challenge to the UK’s authority over Northern Ireland and it’s no coincidence that many of its keenest proponents believe that Britain has no right to be here in the first place.