The Double-Edged Sword of the Irish Backstop

For centuries, Ireland has been a thorn in the side of the British government. The trend has continued with the resignation of Theresa May after three failed attempts to get her Brexit withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons.

The key point of contention that hampered the deal was the Irish backstop, a mechanism built into the withdrawal agreement that ensures that even if the UK leaves the EU without a comprehensive deal at the end of the transition period in December 2020, there will be no physical border or border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This would be achieved by keeping Northern Ireland within the single market. This means that Northern Ireland would be in regulatory alignment with the Republic of Ireland, which would in turn allow frictionless trade across the border. It also means that goods travelling from mainland UK into Northern Ireland would have to meet EU regulations. Much to the ire of Brexit-supporting MPs, the UK would enter a “single customs territory”, which would effectively mean goods exiting and entering the UK will still have to adhere to many EU regulations. Moreover, this arrangement, as long as it existed, would significantly limit the UK from making trade deals with other countries around the world on its own terms, particularly when it comes to exporting.

To many unfamiliar with British-Irish history, the presence of border checks may not seem like such a big deal; many countries have them, and it is little more than a minor inconvenience for those crossing. But Ireland is a special case. This arrangement is highly contentious for a number of historical reasons. When Ireland gained independence in 1922, the north of the country, which had a Protestant Unionist (those who identify as British) majority and a Catholic Nationalist (those who identify as Irish) minority remained under British rule.

The presence of physical infrastructure and customs posts bring back memories of a shared dark past for people living along the border. Such a past contained a period from the late 1960s to 1998 euphemistically known as “The Troubles”, which saw widespread terrorist attacks kill over 3,500 and injure tens of thousands. Bombings and murders carried out by Unionist and Nationalist paramilitary groups were routine, in a conflict over whether Northern Ireland should join the Republic and be ruled from Dublin, or stay within the United Kingdom and stay ruled by London.

The conflict ultimately came to an end with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which brokered a fragile peace and kept Northern Ireland within the UK, but also ensured that Nationalists and Unionists had to share power at a newly devolved parliament in Belfast. The agreement was helped in part by the fact that both the UK and Ireland were members of the EU and therefore shared a common travel area and single market; this ensured no border was needed between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Many fear that the imposition of a border could reignite old tensions and risk the Good Friday Agreement, which always assumed that both the UK and Ireland would be in the EU. Northern Ireland’s chief constable has also expressed his concern that border checkpoints could become targets of fringe Nationalist terrorists groups.

The situation is complicated even further by the fact that the current Conservative government in the UK need the 10 votes of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland to stay in power in Westminster. The DUP are pro-Brexit and strongly identify as British, but are also completely against the backstop, as they see it as a measure that will further isolate Northern Ireland from Britain, closer aligning it to the Republic of Ireland, and ultimately ending in the reunification of Ireland and rule from Dublin. Consequently, the DUP, along with hard-line Brexit supporters, have repeatedly voted down the withdrawal agreement in parliament despite continuing to support the Conservative minority government on key domestic votes.

Despite all of this, it is the economic aspect that most worries the Irish government. Britain is Ireland’s largest trading partner in the EU, and there are serious fears that if Britain leaves without a deal in October, British-Irish trade, particularly cross-border trade, could be seriously impacted by tariffs. They see the backstop as their best hope of ensuring this will not happen.

The feeling among many hard-line Brexit supporting Conservative MPs is that the backstop is a scam concocted by the EU to make sure Britain never leaves in any true sense, staying heavily linked to EU regulations and institutions through the “single customs territory”. This is not such a ridiculous point; one provision within the backstop states that the UK, along with Northern Ireland, cannot withdraw from the “single customs territory” unilaterally unless an agreement is reached that satisfies the EU. It also would limit the UK’s ability to sign trade deals with countries outside of the EU.

The current impasse will no doubt dominate the leadership race for the Conservative Party. With candidates expressing a range of views on how they would solve it, it seems unlikely that any will be able to pass the withdrawal agreement in its current state through the House of Commons. It is equally unlikely that the EU will change the withdrawal agreement in any serious way, having given its firm commitment to the Irish government that the backstop will remain non-negotiable.

Couple this with the likelihood that the next Conservative leader will be a eurosceptic, and it appears increasingly possible that come the 31st of October, Britain will leave the EU without a deal and be forced to trade under WTO regulations. Senior EU leaders have argued that if this were to happen, a physical border would have to be implemented between the North and South of Ireland, as regulatory alignment will not be guaranteed. From their point of view, this must be done to safeguard the integrity of the single market.

This would leave the Irish government in the very position that insisting on a backstop in the first place was meant to avoid; a physical border and trade tariffs that will have disastrous consequences for Irish businesses.

The bizarre situation now exists whereby all three players insist they do not want to see a physical border, and yet as each day passes, the prospect grows more likely.