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Brexit: Is Ireland under pressure to settle for less than the backstop?

The Government will sit tight for now – but a Johnson-style Brexit raises big questions

Borders work in black and white. Political solutions need a bit of grey. That much has been clear as the Brexit drama has built over the last few years. We have all learned a lot about how checks work at borders and how much of this is binary – you either need checks or you don't.

Politicians thrive on the creation of half-way houses and compromises to solve problems. Borders, on the other hand, don’t do fudges. They require documents, checks and people to stop trucks and look inside them.

Bubbling in the background since the UK voted for Brexit has been the question – how do you square the circle between the UK leaving the EU trading bloc and the absence of a trade border on the island of Ireland? If the UK, including the North,wants to diverge from EU customs and regulatory rules then the answer is you can’t. The puzzle can’t be solved.

And hence the backstop was born, the guarantee that whatever happens there will be no hard Border.


Because these things are black and white, it is essentially a black and white guarantee – the North would remain part of the EU customs regime and follow single market rules to the extent necessary to avoid Irish Border checks. Unless and until some other solution was found.It was the nearest that Ireland was going to get to having it both ways after Brexit.

For the Irish Government no other solution will ever be as good as the backstop. Everything else is a compromise – and likely to be messy – as we have seen this week in the proposals put forward by Boris Johnson.

Because once the North leaves the EU customs regime then you need checks to secure the Border, to ensure tariffs and duties are paid and to control smuggling.

Even if technology and advanced processes are used to limit the damage, the Border won’t work as it does now, with all the political uncertainty and economic cost that entails.


There is no mileage for the Government getting involved in trying to negotiate now on the basis of what Johnson has put forward. A deal now looks most unlikely by October 31st, and an extension seems the most likely option – and a UK general election. We will then be back to a new deadline and a new risk of a no-deal exit. And if Johnson remains at the helm there are then three possible outcomes that I can see.

One is a reversion to the Northern Ireland-only backstop idea, probably with Ireland conceding some greater role to a revived Stormont, albeit short of the veto for the DUP on regulatory alignment which the current proposals imply.

This is by far the cleanest solution, though the DUP would hate it as it keeps the North in the EU customs regime. It will feel it has already made a concession on aligning rules and regulations North and South this week, even if the North’s businesses are looking at it askance.Despite the economic cost it may retain support from much of its base for this approach.

The second is an ongoing no-deal with both sides digging in. The EU theory is that the economic costs will make this unworkable for the UK, and that it would come back to the table sooner rather than later. But it is very hard to predict how the aftermath of a no-deal would play.

The third is a compromise deal on the Irish Border. Here is where Ireland may face a choice. Do we accept some solution less satisfactory than the backstop? And this is where the black and white nature of borders comes back into play. If the two parts of the island are in a different customs regime you are talking about limiting the damage of a border rather than keeping things as they are now. Precisely what we would be trying to do in the case of a no-deal.

Of course a comprise or a reversion to something like the Northern Ireland backstop could be negotiated in the aftermath of a no-deal exit. And beyond that lies years of talking about the future relationship between the two sides.


Ireland has made the choice that in the event of a no-deal our priority is safeguarding our single market membership even though this will mean Irish Border checks. This would remain the case in future negotiations. We might be able to limit the damage of Border checks, but things would change fundamentally from what they are now. There are suggestions that some customs checks might take place as goods enter the North, or even as goods leave the island of Ireland for the rest of the EU, but there is a lot of be worked out for these kind or work-around schemes and many tricky issues.

And there is one other key point here. Borders are also about trust. The EU needs to be confident that the correct checks are taking place.Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said in a recent speech that a key issue for Ireland in the event of a no-deal would be to ensure that goods produced here were accepted as Irish on EU markets. The same issue would arise in any future negotiations on compromise arrangements.

Proper checks are needed not only to ensure tariffs are paid but also that goods originating in the UK or beyond do not enter Ireland via a porous Border and then slip into the EU single market. Were this to happen it would be hugely damaging for Ireland, and might even lead to some checks being implemented at continental EU ports on goods incoming from this country.

Ireland cannot be seen to be pulled in any way into the UK's economic ambit after Brexit, particularly given Johnson's stated desire for economic divergence from Europe. But our existing trade ties with the UK and the common travel area still leave us stuck in the middle. Navigating this will present us with huge economic and political challenges– and potentially some difficult choices.

The Government can do little but sit tight for now –and play the ball in front of it in the months ahead.So far the UK has not managed to put anything on the table which the EU is likely to accept, or which might lead to any pressure on Ireland to change tack. The risk of an end-October no-deal may be easing, though they have not disappeared. But beyond that the big questions still remain to be faced.