What the hell is the Irish Backstop?

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That is what my partner asked me the other week. A good question.

Well from the EU’s point of view it makes absolute perfect sense. Not only does the EU want to honour the Good Friday Agreement and not return to a hard border. But also it is next to impossible to police the three hundred mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and the three hundred major and minor crossing points. Yes that is three hundred compared to the 137 crossing points between the EU and every other countries. On the other hand if the border was down the Irish sea which is the natural geographical place for it to be, it would simply mean customs checks on the Belfast to Liverpool ferry and in a few airports, things that would have to be done there anyway. Even though this proposal makes complete, common sense, the EU has said if the UK finds another (say technical solution or another customs arrangement) then fine, but if not the backstop must apply. Nowhere has the EU tied the UK into a permanent customs union. It can leave at any point as long as either the backstop or another solution is found.

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So why are the hardline Brexiteers in the Conservative Party and UKIP so upset about the backstop? After all, there is nothing in the backstop to threaten the union. If the UK diverges from EU rules and regulations (which it probably won’t that much) then what is so bad about Northern Ireland having slightly different rules. It already diverges from the rest of the UK in a lot of respects.

The Northern Ireland common law has roots in Irish common law. They had a separate parliament from 1921, which legislated on such things as prohibiting the tricolour and not applying the same abortion laws. During the troubles the judicial system was different, with non-jury trials etc, with lower burden of proof and an electoral system based on proportional representation. They have completely different parties and the Anglo-Irish agreement gave the Irish Republic joint administration (and to a great extent defacto joint sovereignty). The Good Friday Agreement underpinned the different nature and the Northern Ireland Assembly has special requirements for agreement between both communities and there is a North/South ministerial council – nothing like the other devolved assemblies. Symbolically the Northern Ireland assembly members sign themselves in a book rather than make an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

Northern Ireland has always had different rules and regulations and would in fact benefit from remaining in close regulatory alignment with the Republic. I imagine many UK companies would decide to relocate to take advantage of this fact.

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What a load of nonsense the whole thing is.  Why don’t they just accept the backstop? How is a few checks on cattle in Liverpool and Belfast such a problem? Nowhere does the EU threaten the “precious union”. There are far more serious threats to the UK – from Brexit itself, Scotland, the higher Catholic birthrate and not forgetting Wales where the the momentum for independence is on the rise. They claim to be against a hard border and they think there will be a technological solution therefore the backstop wouldn’t be invoked. So why not accept a backstop that by their own logic wouldn’t be invoked. Unless they don’t really believe in a technological solution and they do envisage a hard border.

The temptation is to dismiss the hard Brexiteer mentality as just a nutty, incoherent, off-the-wall, narcissistic, nationalistic British Unionism in overdrive. But that doesn’t explain everything. There’s not much evidence that Jacob Rees Mogg and Boris Johnson etc have much affinity with Northern Ireland and I doubt if they have ever been there. They made little effort in Scotland or Wales in the various devolution debates nor have they tried to keep the “precious union” together since the referendum result. Their general attitude is f**k [Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales]. It might be all an excuse in order to crash out on WTO terms but I think there is another plausible explanation.

In the Lancaster speech Teresa May said “It is time for Britain to become a global trading nation, striking trade agreements around the world. Through the Common Commercial Policy and the common external tariff, full Customs Union membership prevents us from doing this – but we do want to have a customs agreement with the EU and have an open mind on how we achieve this end.” Decoded this is saying “We want to be in the Customs Union but at the same time we don’t want to be in the Customs Union, so we don’t know what to do, so we’ll decide in the future. Let’s kick the can down the road again.”

I’m convinced that the Irish backstop is just a smoke screen to hide the infighting within the Conservative Party between those that want a softer Norway-style Brexit staying within the Customs Union and those that want a harder Canada-style Brexit outside of it.  Teresa May is in fact keeping the UK in the Customs Union to appease one section of the party and appeasing the other section by saying that this will only be during the transition period. Ie kick the can down the road, sort it out later and blame the EU and Irish government in the meantime. As Tony Blair said, it would have been better to decide what type of Brexit they actually wanted before they invoked Article 50, even more so before March 29th when we are due to leave.

Hardly a startling revelation but it does have some implications. The first is that if Teresa May for some reason manages to get her deal through parliament, it doesn’t really resolve anything. One section of the Conservatives will try and stay within the Customs Union and the other section will try and leave at the end of the transition period. The other implication is that the policy of the softer Brexiteers in the Conservative Party are not that dissimilar to the Labour Party’s permanent Customs Union proposal and there is some chance of a cross party solution along those lines. But is that solution what people want? I don’t think anybody knows anymore.

 

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