The Irish Times view on the Brexit backstop
The requirement for joint agreement on undoing the guarantee is essential
Critics of British prime minister Theresa May have been carefully silent on their attitude to the Border issue – the clear implication is that, for many, a frictionless border in Ireland is a secondary matter.
When UK Attorney General Geoffrey Cox told the Commons on Monday that the backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement “represents a solemn commitment to the people of Northern Ireland that this government will honour and respect the Belfast Agreement” he went to the nub of the issue that for many dissenting MPs is its fatal flaw.
The corollary of his argument is crystal clear, albeit implied: any repudiation of the backstop, in the absence of a decision by both sides that in Cox’s words, it “is no longer necessary to achieve its objectives”, would represent a breach of faith with that solemn commitment, specifically a repudiation of the promise to maintain an open, frictionless border on the island.
Focusing their rage against the review clause, which sets out the conditions under which the UK could leave the backstop, critics of Prime Minister Theresa May have complained that the UK may find itself trapped forever in the customs union, unable to forge its own trade policy. But those May critics have been carefully silent on their attitude to the Border issue – the clear implication is that, for many, a frictionless border in Ireland is a secondary matter, of far less consequence than their ideological preoccupation with getting out of the customs union.
For Ireland, the requirement for joint agreement on undoing the backstop obligation is essential. A backstop which can be unilaterally repudiated is no backstop, no guarantee. Any attempt, as some in London are suggesting, to seek changes in the review clause in the aftermath of a defeat of the Withdrawal Agreement in the Commons next week will be strongly resisted, and rightly so by both Dublin and the other EU member states.
There is also a strong sense that this is a hole that the UK has dug for itself. The UK, obsessed with the delusion that a customs border in the Irish Sea would redefine the North’s constitutional position, adamantly rejected the idea of a backstop based on a Northern Ireland-only temporary membership of the EU trading bloc. The EU agreed reluctantly to a temporary all-UK customs union arrangement as an alternative. The fact that it might not be all that temporary seems not to have occurred to London. It had fashioned a rod for its own back.