There is no such thing as a good Brexit. It is proving difficult enough for the UK as a whole to consider how to reverse over 40 years of sensible co-operation and integration. When it comes to Northern Ireland, these challenges are of a different order.
Northern Ireland only works on the basis of shared power and interdependence. Yet any type of Brexit entails some degree of new division, barriers and friction. The harder the Brexit, the more problematic.
Geography, economics, politics and identity require recognition of how the people of Northern Ireland interact both east-west with Great Britain and north-south on the island. The Good Friday Agreement captures these realities and respects the right of the people of the region to determine their own constitutional status through the Principle of Consent.
It is for these reasons that in the Brexit negotiations both sides recognised the central importance of protecting the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and avoiding a hard border. This can only be achieved through Northern Ireland continuing in the same customs space as the EU, and with sufficient regulatory alignment continuing.
In turn, this entails that either the UK as a whole at a minimum enters in a fresh customs union with the EU and remains in the necessary elements of the single market, or alternatively a special set of arrangements are created for Northern Ireland.
Yet, the UK government created three contradictory red lines: first, to protect the GFA and maintain an open border in Ireland without physical infrastructure; second, to leave both customs union and single market; and third, to oppose a special arrangement for Northern Ireland around the customs union and the single market. Only two elements of this trilemma can be delivered at any one time.
Throughout the Brexit negotiations the UK government has struggled to grasp this reality, and even today it is not understood across the House of Commons. The use of technology, even though it remains on the table for the optics of some, cannot solve this trilemma.
Defaulting to WTO rules in a no deal scenario will entail the emergence of a physical border in Ireland – notwithstanding the wishful thinking of hardline Brexiteers.
It is the UK’s decision to leave the European Union that creates the need for the backstop. This was initially agreed by both the EU and notably the UK in the December 2017 Joint Report, and was envisaged as the minimum involved to avoid a hard border and to protect the Good Friday Agreement.
The EU’s first draft of the withdrawal agreement recognised that the backstop would be specific to Northern Ireland. It was at the behest of the UK government that the customs element of the backstop was extended to the whole of the UK.
Serving as an insurance policy, the backstop would only come into play if, during negotiations on the future relationship, no other solution emerges to keep the border open. But as that insurance, it cannot be time-specific or unilaterally broken – otherwise, it would not be a backstop.
There can be no withdrawal agreement and a transition period without the backstop.
In the Westminster bubble, the backstop is either misunderstood or deliberately misrepresented as a threat to the UK and to the political and economic well-being of Northern Ireland.
While the DUP may monopolise the parliamentary representation from Northern Ireland (by virtue of being the biggest Northern Irish party at Westminster), they are well out of step with the views of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland voted by a clear margin to remain in the EU, and today opinion polls still show majority support for staying in the EU, and for special measures to address the challenges of Brexit if it is to proceed. If a People’s Vote can happen that would be welcome, but it is far from certain and as such there is a need for the backstop to be banked.
A majority of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly come from political parties in support of the backstop. Most voices across the business community, trade unions, the community and voluntary sector, academia and beyond are supportive of, or at least pragmatic about, the backstop.
By law, the constitutional position of Northern Ireland can only be changed through the Principle of Consent and indeed this is entrenched in the Withdrawal Agreement. Consistent with devolution, Northern Ireland has always been different in a range of respects from the rest of the UK. The backstop recognises and builds on these precedents.
Northern Ireland retains free access to Great Britain and the European Union. Brexit is Brexit and the backstop needs to be considered in the round. It is difficult to avoid any new friction from Brexit, but if triggered the proposed backstop would only see the minimum of additional checks on an east-to-west basis.
This is the least damaging approach as it applies to seven sea and air crossings compared to nearly 300 land crossings on the island.
The business community sees this configuration creating fewer problems, and indeed, especially if the backstop can be a foundation to a more comprehensive future relationship, it provides Northern Ireland with a relative comparative economic advantage in terms of the unique combination of preferential access to the markets of both Great Britain and Europe. This would allow Northern Ireland to serve as a bridge between the two.
By contrast, it is understood that a no deal outcome would be particularly catastrophic, with important sectors such as agri-food facing steep tariffs, and a real fears of a hard border. Indeed, it is that no deal situation that would pose the real threat to the future political and economic cohesion of the region.
Those MPs who oppose the withdrawal agreement because of the backstop or amplify misplaced concerns are doing so contrary to the views of most people in Northern Ireland.