Fiach Kelly: The backstop is a fight worth having

Backstop is consequence of Tory’s reliance on DUP because of May’s reckless gamble

Whatever differences those on the Opposition benches had with the Government’s presentation of Brexit issues, as well as the public tone struck by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, support for the backstop has not wavered in Leinster House

Whatever differences those on the Opposition benches had with the Government’s presentation of Brexit issues, as well as the public tone struck by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, support for the backstop has not wavered in Leinster House

 

There is often a need, in the tempest of Brexit, to rub your eyes and look again at what you are seeing, or to listen again to what you are being told.

To check if the same Michael Gove who just months ago was advocating the merits of the withdrawal agreement is now intoning with po-faced solemnity that it is “wrong and sad” that the EU will not agree to fresh negotiations.

Such negotiations, says Boris Johnson’s new government, can only begin once the EU has agreed that the backstop, the insurance policy to avoid a hard Border, is abolished.

“We stand ready to engage with the European Union, to negotiate in good faith,” said Gove, without a hint of embarrassment at weaving the phrase “good faith” into such a shameless statement.

Support for the backstop has not wavered in Leinster House

Another of the claims which requires careful examination is that the backstop – or the “anti-democratic” backstop, as Johnson insists on calling it – will ultimately be self-defeating because it is propelling the UK towards a no-deal Brexit and a resulting hard Border in Ireland.

A no-deal Brexit at the end of October is indeed now likely, and the backstop will be blamed by some in Ireland and in the UK for the chaos it will bring.

While the backstop has been a feature of our discourse since late 2017, it is worth recalling what led to its inclusion, firstly in the EU-UK Brexit joint report in December 2017, and then in the subsequent withdrawal agreement.

British government policy, as outlined by Theresa May at the Tory party conference in 2016 and later in a speech in London’s Lancaster House in January 2017, was to leave the European single market and customs union. Trade with the EU was to be as “frictionless as possible”, a clear implication that there would indeed be some friction.

BREXIT: The Facts

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Those positions, and not the backstop itself, made Border infrastructure on the island of Ireland inevitable if the UK proceeded as May had outlined. If the backstop had not been in place the logical outworking of the British position was that some checks were coming.

No other choice

Whatever differences those on the Opposition benches had with the Government’s presentation of Brexit issues, as well as the public tone struck by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, support for the backstop has not wavered in Leinster House.

This, along with broader public support for the backstop policy, has been decried in some quarters as blinkered green jersey-ism, but it is instead an acknowledgement that Ireland had no other choice.

Even seemingly more modest demands to put a time limit on the backstop, made earlier in the process before Johnson demanded its abolition, should be seen for what they are. Speaking at Westminster’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee earlier this year, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson said such a time limit would be acceptable because “that in effect has the same outcome – there is no backstop”.

A no-deal Brexit will bring serious economic repercussions for both Dublin and London, and even worse for Northern Ireland

Just as some Brexiteers say that their vision of a UK out from under the auspices of the European Union is not just about economics but sovereignty too, then the Irish position on the backstop should be viewed and respected as being about more than lassoing the UK into a close, post-Brexit relationship with the EU.

The initial Northern Ireland-only backstop was only designed to prevent a hard Border on the island, and to avoid future divergence with the Republic.

The wider backstop, which keeps the entire UK in a customs union with the EU unless and until a future trade deal or technological arrangements solve the Border issue, is a consequence of the Conservative Party’s reliance on the DUP because of May’s reckless general election gamble in 2017.

Economics

The UK is now led by a prime minister who is driving towards a no-deal Brexit; a leader of the Conservative Party who reportedly once said “f**k business”.

In defending the backstop, Tánaiste Simon Coveney is on record as saying that peace is more important than economics. By now it should be clear that politics, not economics, is driving Brexit positions on both sides of the Irish Sea.

A no-deal Brexit will bring serious economic repercussions for both Dublin and London, and even worse for Northern Ireland. But politics has the whip hand now.

While some in Britain defend their own policy without regard to economics, they seem to believe that economic arguments will convince Dublin to give way. Such a belief misreads Dublin as Dublin and Brussels can often misread London.

Varadkar’s December 2017 promise that Northern nationalists would never again be left behind by Dublin cannot be measured against the yardstick of economic growth.

Some in the Taoiseach’s inner circle have long believed that Westminster would be incapable of passing any kind of withdrawal deal, and that a no-deal Brexit would follow. The backstop, at the very least, showed that the Government and all parties in the Oireachtas valued keeping Northern Ireland close to the Republic, and wanted to avoid the introduction of new barriers on the island.

That, surely, was a fight worth having, even if it comes to naught.

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