190801 Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson Image Credit: Reuters

In less than two weeks’ time both India and Pakistan will mark 72 years as independent nations as a result of the partition of that land that the British once ruled. And since that time, the thorn of contention between the two has been Kashmir.

Imagine, if you can, there comes a time when there is no border between Indian-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. It’s an open border, where people are free to see relatives, can do business across that former frontier, and the lives of those living in Kashmir are as integrated as if that border never existed.

Now imagine if one party were to decide that all of the business, goods and people flowing across that open border had to revert to a different set of rules.

Would there be distrust? Yes. Upset? Yes. A threat of violence? Yes. A resolve that that should not happen again? Yes. And would it not be wise then to try and prevent that hard border — as it exists now — from ever returning again? Yes, absolutely. That’s why you’d need and insist upon such a guarantee that never again would that open border return to the days of armed men.

And such a guarantee would be called the backstop.

Now apply that same logic to the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. That backstop is intended to be a guarantee that never again will there be a return to the dark old days, where goods were smuggled and armed terrorists under the cover of darkness could do their worst.

In the coming months and in the past days since Boris Johnson became prime minister of the United Kingdom — he has even added a new title of ‘Minister of the Union’ to his office in an attempt to somehow give his actions some more majesty and political heft — you will be hearing a lot more of this word.

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Johnson will use ‘backstop’ as the reason to try and take the United Kingdom out of the European Union (EU) on October 31 without a deal.

That need for the backstop will be the reason why a majority of members of parliament have voted against the UK leaving the EU without a deal. They believe it to be necessary.

And “backstop” will be the subject of venom unleashed in the UK’s right-wing press upon Dublin, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar — no doubt his Indian heritage will be bandied about as an element of contempt, his sexuality too — and upon the collective leadership of the EU generally.

The inconvenient truth of the fact that it was a majority of Brits who decided to leave the EU and not the other way around, will be ignored as Johnson and the Farage falangists do everything in their power to take the UK out of the EU on Halloween come hell or high water. Everything will be that backstop’s fault.

How conveniently the former foreign secretary has forgotten that both the UK and the EU have said that they do not want any physical infrastructure on that frontier.

Both sides have also failed so far to come up with any alternative arrangements that are practical, effective and will prevent Northern Ireland from being a black hole where goods will move in and out of Ireland and the EU without proper oversight. Goods? People too. Money launderers, people smugglers, drug runners and the purveyors of chlorinated chicken — imagine that in your tikka masala — allowed to enter the UK as a result of a trade deal with the US.

Backstop straitjacket

Here is another inconvenient truth that will be ignored in the coming days by those Johnsonites and Farage falangists: The backstop in its original form required that only Northern Ireland be kept very closely aligned to EU customs rules to remove that need for a hard border after Brexit. It is the Northern Ireland unionists — specifically the 10 Democratic Unionist party MPs on which the Conservative government then of Theresa May and now of the Minister for the Union relies — that had that backstop altered to include the rest of the United Kingdom.

That is why Boris is in a backstop straitjacket. Not Dublin, not Brussels — but Belfast.

Under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between London and Brussels, that backstop only takes effect if the UK has failed to ensure that its own laws fail to be largely in parallel with those of the EU after a period of at least two years of a period of transition. For the 48 per cent of Britons who are Remainers but who must somehow reconcile themselves to life outside the EU, or for the vast majority of Breixteers who would like to see some sort of reasonable accommodation with the EU, that alignment is not unreasonable.

For the hardline Brexiteers, the Farage falangists and the 10 MPs upon whom Johnson relies now, that backstop is the antithesis of everything they bow and bend to the Right for.