What did politically engaged people in the British Isles talk about, think about and write about before the Irish backstop? It sometimes feels as if this euphemism has been with us forever. Yet, it’s surrounded by so much propaganda it’s easy to forget what the term actually means.
The backstop started out as a ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland. After the Brexit referendum result, nationalists in Ulster, the Dublin government and pro-EU liberals started demanding that the province stay in the single market and customs union as a way of protecting its links to the Republic of Ireland, even if the rest of the UK left.
Brussels adopted the plan during negotiations with Britain, supposedly on the basis that it was the only way to prevent a ‘hard border’ on the island of Ireland. It was a powerful way of showing that the EU would support its member states and exact a price from Britain, even if it meant risking peace and attacking the UK’s territorial integrity.
Over two years of tortuous talks the language had shifted, but the core idea remained unchanged when it was included in the Draft Withdrawal Agreement, as the Northern Ireland Protocol. Theresa May tried to dress up her deal as a UK-wide arrangement, claiming this represented a concession by Brussels.
Journalists who are sympathetic to the backstop frequently claim that it requires the whole of the UK to remain in the EU customs union, or that it protects the Good Friday Agreement, on which Ulster’s ‘peace process’ is based. It might be useful shorthand in articles, but neither the text of the Northern Ireland protocol nor the provisions of the Belfast Agreement support these claims.
The 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 were ever implemented, Northern Ireland would remain part of the EU customs union and leave the customs territory of the UK. The Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, advised May’s cabinet that this meant companies from Great Britain would have to fill in customs declarations to send shipments to Northern Ireland.
From the EU’s point of view, goods arriving in the province from the rest of the UK would be treated as imports into its territory by a ‘third country’. In addition, while Great Britain has a right to leave the joint customs area, Northern Ireland remains part of the union in the absence of ‘alternative arrangements’ for the land border with the Republic that satisfy Brussels’ requirements.
Similar provisions cover the application of EU 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 is effectively voluntary.
There’s some talk about the potential for a ‘Northern Ireland only backstop’ to prevent a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Actually, there’s already very little to stop the government pulling out of the UK-wide aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement and operating only the parts that apply to Ulster. The text leaves that possibility open.
Just like the idea that the backstop is UK-wide, the notion that it protects the Good Friday Agreement seems to have taken hold without any evidence. Very quickly after the referendum, the Supreme Court ruled that the accord applied to Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom rather than its membership of the EU.
The agreement contained provisions about the dismantlement of security installations at the Irish frontier, that were necessary because of the threat of terrorist attacks, but it had nothing to say about a hard border, a soft border, or any of the issues around trade and customs that have been connected with it over the last three years.
Many of the same people who made these doubtful claims reacted with fury when Boris Johnson said, in a recent letter to Donald Tusk, that the backstop was contrary to the Good Friday Agreement. Yet, his assertion was at least based on a reading of the text. The agreement allocated the responsibilities of the Stormont Assembly, the British government and all-Ireland bodies carefully, and the Withdrawal Agreement threatens to upend that balance.
In Northern Ireland, propaganda in favour of the backstop has been unceasing. The media, the governments of Theresa May and Leo Varadkar and a political alliance of nationalists and europhile liberals focussed relentlessly on the possible effects of a ‘hard border’ in Ireland. There has scarcely been any analysis of the possible impact of internal UK barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or the political consequences of granting Brussels authority over the province.
A narrow majority of MLAs from the dormant Stormont Assembly this week sent a letter to Donald Tusk, demanding that he defend the backstop. They could persuade not a single unionist, either from a party or an independent, to add their signature.
The peace process was always founded on the requirement for important decisions on Northern Ireland’s future to be taken on a cross-community basis, but that principle has been jettisoned by nationalists and their anti-UK allies, as soon as they could make a doubtful claim to speak for a majority.
The purpose of the backstop, and special status before it, was always to ensure that any new political and economic line feel between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, rather than along the existing border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The core idea has not changed through any of its incarnations.
The backstop is not an insurance policy and never has been. It’s a direct challenge to the UK’s authority over an integral part of its territory and many of its keenest proponents are those who believe that Britain has no right to govern Northern Ireland in the first place.