The Irish backstop has become one of the, it not the, most disputed aspects of Brexit. It exposes pronounced differences not only between the UK government, the Irish government and the EU, but also within and between political parties both in Westminster and across Northern Ireland.
For Brexit supporters, the backstop is seen as tying the UK indefinitely to the EU by preventing unilateral withdrawal from the EU customs union unless a future UK-EU trade agreement has been agreed.
Remaining in the customs union would mean that the UK could not credibly pursue free-trade deals around the world. For the European Research Group (ERG) of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs in particular, the triggering of the backstop would undermine this key ambition for life outside the EU.
It is unacceptable to them because it would effectively keep the UK within the EU’s orbit until such time as both jointly decided on a future relationship. There will be some capacity for the UK to pursue service deals with other countries after Brexit, but these types of agreements are rare and exceptionally difficult to negotiate and conclude.
The ‘Northern Ireland and Ireland protocol’ attached to the Withdrawal Agreement also require Northern Ireland to align with specific EU rules across a range of sectors. This effectively means that, should Britain diverge from those rules, there will need to be checks on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.
The EU has resisted Theresa May’s proposal to create a ‘common rulebook’ allowing the UK some say over the formulation of EU rules after it leaves the EU. May tells European Parliament there will be a backstop.
The Labour Party’s position on the backstop is less clear. The party voted against the Withdrawal Agreement although this was not motivated by opposition to the backstop.
However, following a meeting with prime minister Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn signalled dissatisfaction with the Irish backstop because of the lack of a unilateral exit clause.
Key party figures moved swiftly to reassure the Irish government and Northern Ireland businesses that the Labour party does not dispute the need for a backstop.
Corbyn’s five conditions for Labour party support for the government’s Brexit deal includes a UK-wide customs union with the EU which would effectively eliminate the need for a backstop.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has expressed support for the Irish government in its quest to maintain the backstop.
In Northern Ireland, the backstop means fundamentally different things to different people.
In particular, it has revealed stark differences of interpretation between unionist and nationalist political parties. The core unionist constituency in Northern Ireland feels deeply aggrieved by the backstop.
Opposition to it is most visibly represented by unionist political parties – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the smaller Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the even smaller minor party, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).
Their objections are numerous. First, unionists are concerned that the backstop impinges on the constitutional integrity of the UK by introducing more checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Second, unionists fear that the backstop has the potential to see Northern Ireland ‘drift [legislatively] farther away from the UK’, as the province will be required to align with EU rules even if these conflict with British rules.
Third, they see the backstop as resulting in a diminished role for the (currently collapsed) Northern Ireland Assembly, which would be compelled to accept some EU law without contributing to its formulation.
And fourth, unionists interpret the backstop as being contrary to the principle of consent, a cornerstone of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, although this has been disputed by both the UK attorney-general and the prime minister.
Keeping the Irish border free-flowing has proved to be the toughest issue to resolve in negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union. However, the unionist interpretation is not one shared by other political, economic, sectoral and civic constituencies in Northern Ireland.
Four of Northern Ireland’s political parties support the backstop. This includes the two nationalist parties – the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Féin – and two smaller middle-ground parties, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and the Green Party.
A significant section of civil society in Northern Ireland, representing both sides of the political divide, support the backstop. The list of organisations includes the Confederation of British Industry Northern Ireland, and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).
Key sectoral interests also support the backstop. In his response to the Withdrawal Agreement, Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts stated: ‘Nearly every Northern Ireland business organisation and sector of the economy is supporting this deal. MPs in all parties need to listen to what we are saying.’
Those sectoral organisations include, among others, Manufacturing Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association and Northern Ireland’s largest farming union, the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU).
A key Brexit stakeholder, the Irish government, clearly also supports the backstop. And, crucially, a majority of public opinion in Northern Ireland does so as well (as John Garry describes).
There is an understanding in Ireland that the backstop is an insurance policy – a practical and temporary means of preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland in the event that no future EU-UK relationship is agreed.
Rather than being interpreted as a threat to Northern Ireland, it is seen as allowing Northern Ireland access to the benefits and opportunities offered by both the EU and UK markets.
However, claims that it offers ‘the best of both worlds’, that it is a position of ‘last resort’ and EU assurances that it will only be triggered for the shortest possible period have done little to assuage the concerns of those who view the backstop as a nefarious attempt either to keep the UK tied to the EU indefinitely or to undermine Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the UK.
During her recent visit to Northern Ireland, Theresa May reiterated that she does not want to remove the backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement, although she does want changes to it. But this strikes at the most fundamental problem of all: there are no obvious, acceptable alternatives to it in its current form.
By Dr Mary C. Murphy, Lecturer at University College Cork. This piece originally appeared in Metro. Click for the full report ‘Brexit and the backstop: everything you need to know‘.