Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Stephen Collins: Johnson’s backstop offer should not be dismissed out of hand

Taking emotion out of Brexit proposals, or at least minimising it, will be vital on all sides

Amid the initial suspicion in Dublin and Brussels about British prime minister Boris Johnson’s 11th-hour offer of a deal with the European Union it should be recognised that he has made a necessary if not yet sufficient move which may form the basis for genuine discussions.

If it is a take it or leave it offer, as was widely touted by Downing Street sources in advance, it will almost certainly be rejected by the EU negotiating team and the Irish Government. If, on the other hand, it is a starting point for detailed negotiations there is an outside chance it could still form the basis for a deal.

One important early signal will be if the two sides believe there is enough of a foundation for the talks to enter the so-called tunnel for serious negotiations in Brussels. If that happens, a settlement by October 31st, or later in the year, is an outside possibility – assuming another UK membership extension is followed by a general election in Britain.

Despite the initial negative noises emanating from Dublin and Brussels it is clear that Johnson and the Democratic Unionist Party have made a significant move by accepting that Northern Ireland should remain part of the EU single market for at least four years with a border running down the Irish Sea.


There are two big problems with this plan. One is that the concession will be subject to a veto by the northern assembly and the Stormont executive and the other is that the North would remain outside the EU customs union meaning that some kind of checks on trade would be required on the island of Ireland.

From the point of view of the Irish Government a third of the loaf is hardly much better than no bread but what if the offer could be improved to two-thirds of a loaf or even more? That might tempt European leaders to start nibbling and would put pressure on the Government in Dublin to look seriously at a deal.

Part of the strategy behind the British offer is that a crash out no deal would be so catastrophic for Ireland, North and South, with the inevitable requirement of a hard border and customs checks to protect the EU single market, that almost any alternative would be more palatable to the Government in Dublin.

That was what prompted Johnson in his speech to the Conservative Party conference to reduce the prospect of border controls to technical issues which could be dealt with at warehouses or ports well away from the actual Border with a minimum number of spot-checks near the boundary itself. There is probably an element of truth in this and it is exactly what the Government and the EU are already examining as part of their planning for the imposition of checks to protect the single market if there is a no-deal Brexit.

Initial response

The problem as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pointed out in his initial response is that the issue goes deeper than technical solutions. At the core of the problem is the issue of Irish national identity which is viscerally opposed to any restoration of border infrastructure. However, it needs to be recognised in the South that this also applies to unionist opposition to the backstop which on an economic level is irrational but is no less real for all that. Taking emotion out of the issue, or at least reducing it to a minimum, will be vital on all sides if there is to be any chance of a solution that can command wide support on both sides of the Border.

Emotion also fuels the internal politics in which any solution, or none, will be played for party advantage in both countries. The immediate outraged reaction of the Opposition parties in the Dáil to the Johnson offer shows the kind of political storm that Varadkar will inevitably face if he agrees to any kind of deal short of the proposed backstop.

One of the important calculations for the Government in Dublin is whether Johnson’s offer is a serious starting position or merely a device to shift the blame to the EU and the Irish if there is no deal. The uncertainty about what will happen in British politics in the coming weeks is another cause of nervousness.

The prevailing view in political circles in London at this stage is that there will be another request to the EU for an extension of article 50. That will hardly come from Johnson, given his “do or die” proclamation, but more likely through some other device that will pave the way for a British general election.

In his conference speech, which was primarily aimed at a British audience rather than the EU, Johnson has already framed that election as a contest between the Conservative Party and those in parliament who have obstructed the will of the people. “Get Brexit done” was the conference slogan and that will be election slogan as well.

The outcome of that election is unpredictable at this stage but present indications are that Johnson will lead the Conservatives to victory and could well have an overall majority. Whether he will use that to pursue a compromise with the EU or a no-deal Brexit only time will tell.