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Newton Emerson: The backstop has completely backfired for Ireland

Provision has poisoned relations and muddied understanding of Belfast Agreement

As Westminster stumbles towards heaven knows what on Brexit, Ireland is learning Putnam's theory of two-level games: in an international negotiation you should only clobber your opponent up to the point where they can sell a deal at home. The backstop was a clobbering too far, and the pain spread like an infection.

An analysis of statements by 105 Conservative MPs opposed to the EU withdrawal agreement, published last Sunday, found only 13 cited the Northern Ireland backstop in their objections. However, 81 cited the “rule-taking” that flows from the British government’s attempt to sell the backstop to the DUP by extending its customs union aspect to the whole UK.

Worse than the backstop undermining its own purpose of avoiding a hard Border is how it has poisoned the British-Irish relationship.

Ireland and the EU insist a backstop is necessary in case the UK cannot deliver its promise of no Border infrastructure in a future trading arrangement. This week’s events in London suggest the UK cannot be guaranteed to deliver anything. However, the need for a guarantee has often been expressed as a pejorative question of trust.


Last October, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar felt moved to say the backstop was “not just an issue of principle but one of trust”. He then ruled out an expiry date for it on that basis. What this actually declared was mistrust – doubt the UK would live up to its word.

Such mistrust inevitably flows from the almost universal Irish perception that Brexit breaches the Belfast Agreement. A hard Border is presumed to be not just a security and economic problem but a self-evident traducing of the agreement’s spirit and even text despite the text containing not a single word on the subject.

Trying to convince the Irish they are mistaken appears at this stage to be futile. The UK, and unionists in particular, must take on board Ireland’s view of the agreement as not a settlement but a process, whose direction has been unilaterally interrupted. If one side to an agreement genuinely believes it has been broken then in practice, rightly or wrongly, it is broken.

Cuts both ways

What the Irish must take on board is that this mistrust cuts both ways. Where they see perfidious Albion, the British see duplicitous Hibernia, and have been given just as much reason to do so. A guarantee against a hard Border, perfectly legitimate for stand-alone economic and security reasons, has instead been demanded to “protect the Belfast Agreement in all its parts”, although no part of the agreement requires it.

Securing this demand via Brussels has been proclaimed by the Irish Government as a diplomatic triumph and the centrepiece of its Brexit strategy.

At the same time Stormont has collapsed and Sinn Féin is demanding a border poll; the Taoiseach has erroneously threatened “a form of joint authority” via the agreement’s East-West body, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference; Brexit has been described as breaching the consent principle, although the legal inaccuracy of this could scarcely be clearer; and every effect on cross-Border co-operation has been portrayed as violating the agreement rather than just impacting certain bodies within their remit.

The best if not only way to rebuild trust is by re-establishing consensus on what the Belfast Agreement means

No wonder unionists in particular suspect the Irish of seizing their moment.

All this mistrust came full circle last July when UK prime minister Theresa May, in a keynote speech in Belfast, made another convoluted attempt to sell the backstop to the DUP by claiming a customs sea border would breach the agreement “for exactly the same reason a hard Border would”.

She did not add “for no reason whatsoever”. The backstop has muddied understanding of the agreement until everyone is making it up as they go along.

Rebuilding trust

Whatever now happens with Brexit, assuming it goes ahead, the issues it raises on the island of Ireland still have to be dealt with, whether that is by a backstop or through other approaches inside or outside a withdrawal deal.

A first step to this must be rebuilding trust, and the best if not only way to do that is by re-establishing consensus on what the Belfast Agreement means. It does not have to be renegotiated, yet. A re-agreement would suffice.

Ideally, the backstop should be distinguished from the agreement to stand on its own merits. At the very least the number of Brexit problems viewed as potential breaches should be reduced by both sides to a shorter shared list.

If that could be achieved the agreement’s moribund institutions provide a way of moving forward. Its three strands – North-South, East-West and Stormont – have competence to address EU issues, and could be used to manage Brexit, including any backstop.

Ireland has an understandable reluctance to engage in anything that smacks of bilateral negotiation for fear of being picked off from its European partners.

But if the Irish and EU goal is to protect the agreement in all its parts, that concern should not apply to making all its parts work again.