The “Irish Backstop” Problem Hindering Brexit

The “Irish backstop” has been the major impediment towards the success of Brexit negotiations, between the EU and the UK. The controversy surrounding this stems from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that was signed as part of the Northern Ireland peace process. To achieve and maintain peace, the agreement called for the enhancement of cross border cooperation between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the “‘normalisation'” of relations between Protestant and Catholic communities within and across the two territories after years of conflicts.

This led to the withdrawal of British troops from the Irish border, to allow free movement of goods and people between Ireland and Northern Ireland. However the results of the 2016 Brexit referendum, presented a new challenge to the Irish open border as UK began taking steps to take control of its borders.

This sparked fear among Irish leaders who felt that the introduction of border checks after Brexit could revive old divisions and jeopardise the peace process. After taking note of the complaints, both the UK and EU agreed that any Brexit deal should include a “backstop” to keep the border open, for the sake of the Good Friday Agreement.

The issue of the backstop became a major obstacle when the former British Prime Minister, Theresa May, brought to parliament an agreement she had negotiated. The agreement stated that after Brexit, the UK was to remain a member of the EU single market and custom’s union for a certain duration of time for businesses to adjust and also enable the Government to negotiate for new trade deals with the European Union.

The Irish backstop was to be introduced after this transition period and before the conclusion of negotiations on new trade agreements. According to the backstop, Northern Ireland was to remain a member of the EU single market until new trade deals to keep the border invisible were reached. This essentially meant that no checks were to be carried on the Irish border for a certain duration. The only downside of this was that, although the aim was to keep Northern Irish border open for the sake of peace and also to minimise economic damage, it also meant that the UK was to remain under EU laws for some time after Brexit.

The deal was, however, rejected by many Conservatives who argued that the backstop would trap the UK in the EU and also block it from making trade agreements with non-EU countries. The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland also refused to endorse it claiming it would leave Northern Ireland in a different customs arrangement to the rest of the UK. Boris Johnson who was then serving as Foreign Minister resigned from the government claiming that the UK was headed “for the status of a colony” if Theresa May’s soft Brexit proposal sailed through.

“Since I cannot in all conscience champion these proposals, I have sadly concluded that I must go,” said Boris in his resignation letter. The impasse over led to the eventual resignation of Theresa May as Prime Minister in mid this year.

On 19 August, the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, after failing to make any headway in his attempts to deliver Brexit, attacked the Northern Irish backstop describing it as “anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK” and a risk to the delicate balance embodied in the Good Friday Agreement. In his letter to the EU, he urged the Union to come up with new terms which would allow the UK to achieve a Brexit deal, pointing out that the backstop could not form part of an agreed Withdrawal Agreement. Instead, he proposed replacing the backstop with what he called “flexible and creative” arrangements which would ensure a soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit.

For a time it seemed as if a deal was unlikely as Boris maintained his do or die stance of delivering Brexit by the 31 October. But now more than ever, there’s a glimmer of hope following the successful talks between him and Ireland’s Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar on the question of the backstop. In what could signal a major concession both the British Government and the European Union have now agreed to intensify negotiations over Boris Johnson’s proposal to see if it could lead to a Brexit deal over the remaining weeks. Although the backstop proposal has remained a secret, the Times stated that under it, Britain would collect tariffs on behalf of the EU for goods ending up in Northern Ireland and companies could claim rebates. “Northern Ireland effectively stays in the EU’s customs union but for trade, it’s in the UK’s customs union,” a source familiar with the proposal told the Times.

But in what could be a major blow to the British Prime Minister’s efforts to get a last-minute deal, Mr Nigel Dodds the deputy leader of Northern Ireland’s unionist party DUP, has trashed the proposal saying “it cannot work.” In an interview with an Italian paper La Repubblica, he said “ Northern Ireland must stay in a full UK customs union. Full stop.” This is contrary to the reconciliatory note struck by Boris and Mr Varadkar, Ireland’s Prime Minister.

Whether a deal is achievable within the few remaining days, is still subject of debate. The EU Council Donald Tusk although expressing some optimism warned”. No guarantee of success and the time is practically up.” The truth is that in case Boris Johnson fails to get a deal, Northern Ireland would come under the same customs and regulatory standards as the UK, while its neighbour, Ireland, remain under the EU. This would lead to a hard border thus undermining the Good Friday agreement according to experts.