It is the issue on which the success of Brexit now appears to hinge. Boris Johnson won’t do a deal that includes it; Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the EU won’t do a deal without it. It is of course the backstop.
Often referred to as “the Irish backstop” or “the Northern Ireland backstop”, it actually relates to the entirety of the UK. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the whole country would remain aligned to EU regulations in order to prevent the need for customs checks on the Irish border, which is the desire of all involved.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The withdrawal agreement allows for alternative arrangements to be made around the backstop, without the agreement itself having to be reopened or renegotiated. So here’s an idea.
Surely “the Northern Ireland backstop” should apply only to Northern Ireland? In this instance, Northern Ireland would remain within the EU customs territory and common regulatory area, until such time as a trade deal between the UK and the EU could be negotiated. It would remove the need for a border on the island of Ireland, and offer Northern Ireland a uniquely privileged place with access to the markets of both the UK and the EU.
The catch is that it would necessitate checks on goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK instead, effectively forming a trade border in the Irish Sea. After this idea was floated by the EU in February 2018, Theresa May said it was a proposal that “no UK prime minister could ever agree to.” But a lot has changed since then, and we are now staring straight into the abyss of far graver, less palatable scenarios.
Theresa May appeared to reject the Northern Ireland-only backstop against her better judgement because she had Arlene Foster and the DUP breathing down her neck. They remain firmly aligned with Johnson, and he has made overtures of support towards their insistence that all nations of the UK stay together and leave on exactly the same terms – however catastrophic for our politics, economy and society. They would prefer that we all suffered together, rather than prospered on slightly different terms.
A Northern Ireland-only backstop is the simple and obvious solution to all of that looming chaos, and makes sense on so many fronts.
Wouldn’t most people in the UK be happy to accept this arrangement if it meant a more smooth and orderly Brexit?
Couldn’t we live with Northern Ireland remaining under EU regulations for a while, and enjoying the best of both worlds, considering the region voted to Remain anyway?
Did people really vote to take back control from Brussels only to hand it to 10 DUP MPs who do not even represent the views of their own region?
And with polls showing that a hard border would immediately increase calls for the reunification of Ireland, shouldn’t the DUP and other British unionists be avoiding this scenario at all costs?
Johnson should pluck up some of that Churchillian spirit he so admires and ditch the DUP, either by daring them to vote him down, ushering in the Corbyn era they fear, or by calling an early election before 31 October to gain his own majority, and end their hold over his party and the country.
If Johnson then moved to a Northern Ireland-only backstop, this would be perfectly acceptable to Ireland and the EU, while at home, he could claim to have gained changes, sell it as a win and emerge as the Brexit hero he desires to be. Such a manoeuvre in pursuit of success wouldn’t be beneath our prime minister.
And let us not forget that this is about more than any leader, political party or national movement – it’s about peace.
What we are striving to protect here is the integrity of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which enjoyed the backing of 71 per cent of people in Northern Ireland – a consensus of which Brexiteers could only dream. The eradication of the border – a symbol of division and a target for armed republicans – was a crucial result of this deal, as we saw the island harmonised under shared EU membership.
In 1998, unique solutions were found to unique problems. We must find that kind of inspired thinking again to save Northern Ireland – and the rest of the UK – from the disaster of a no-deal Brexit.
The Good Friday Agreement confirmed Northern Ireland as a place within the UK, but different to the rest of the UK; with a unique requirement for cross-community power-sharing, the acceptance of two national identities, and an acknowledgement that the region will remain in the UK only with the consent of a majority.
Northern Ireland already has a recognised special status, and this has not diminished the constitutional integrity of the UK. A Northern Ireland-only backstop must be viewed as an extension of this.
With some rousing words and a tousle of the hair, Johnson could sell this arrangement as a victory, while it will also satisfy Varadkar and other EU leaders. But most importantly, it would maintain the peaceful but fragile status quo in Northern Ireland – which we should be protecting at all costs.