When it comes to naming words of the year, there’s every chance that ‘backstop’ will make the top in any list of nominations. So, what is it? Any why is so important? Here’s everything you never want to know about the backstop...
First, a history lesson...
The island of Ireland is divided, with Northern Ireland ruled by the United Kingdom. Since January 1921, the 26 counties to the south are an independent nation, now the Republic of Ireland.
...then came ‘The Troubles’
Beginning in 1969 and lasting three decades, there was a terrorist campaign centred on Northern Ireland. Republicans, or Irish nationalists — who were mostly from the minority Roman Catholic communities — through the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and other terror groups, attempted to force a united Ireland. British and Northern Irish security forces tried to maintain the peace. The Protestant majority, who wished to remain loyalist — maintaining the political union with the rest of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland and Wales), also turned to Loyalist paramilitaries for protection, and voted for hardline political parties such as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Ok, but what has this got to do with the backstop?
Well, it was a mess. Some 3,600 died and another 36,000 were injured. And even though the UK and the Republic of Ireland both joined the European Economic Community together in January 1973, the border had to be very secure. Security forces on both sides locked it down, trying to prevent guns and explosives — and wanted terrorist suspects — from moving across it. Smuggling was also a source of funds for terrorists.
...but the backstop?
In 1998, Britain and Ireland signed the Good Friday agreement to end that 30 years of violence. The Irish changed their constitution to give up a territorial claim to the lost territory, while the British gave the people of Northern Ireland a future say over whether it should stay British or join the Irish republic.
The border controls stayed in place?
No. Because there was peace, the border was just like most of Europe’s other borders. The Good Friday Agreement ended controls along the 500km border and set up many all-Ireland institutions. Now, it’s no different than driving from Abu Dhabi to Dubai.
So, everything is good, right?
No, not so fast. Brexit — where the UK leaves the EU — would mean Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain would have to operate under different rules. And different rules would mean checks on trucks, checks on papers, checks on lorries carrying animals or other goods.
But checks are good, right?
Well yes, they are. But the EU is so integrated now, there are no checks, because all the 28 nations can move their goods around the world’s third-biggest market of 570 million people. But because of Brexit — the Brits voted to leave the EU — checks might have to come in.
But then checks are bad...
Because the economies of Northern Ireland and the Republic are so closely intertwined — millions in goods and thousands of people cross it every day — checks would be damaging. Besides, both the UK and the EU fear that bringing checks back — making it a ‘hard’ border again — could spark a return to violence. And no one wants that.
So, keep the border open then...
Yes, that’s the intent. But that’s easier said than done, which is where the backstop comes in...
But what is the backstop?
It’s a guarantee.
A guarantee? Of what?
It’s a guarantee that no matter what happens down the road, once the UK goes its own way, the border will remain largely as it is now.
So, that’s not a bad thing?
No, it’s not — if you support the EU and believe in the free movement of goods, services and people.
... but it is a bad thing...
It’s a bad thing if you support a ‘hard’ Brexit. That means taking back control of your borders, not letting the EU have any say in your political or customs affairs, and being free to make trade deals with whoever you like. So, if there’s an open border, where people can goods can move freely, that’s not taking back control, is it?
So, treat Northern Ireland differently...
That would seem logical to most people. It’s separate from the rest of the UK, with the Irish Sea separating it from mainland Britain.
You can’t, because the DUP say so.
They are unionists who believe that Northern Ireland is the same as any other part of the UK, and shouldn’t be treated differently. What’s more, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative party is in a minority and relies on those 10 seats to be able to govern.
So, no customs checks in the Irish Sea?
No. They oppose having customs passport checks getting off an internal UK flight from Belfast to Manchester, for example, or on trucks on a ferry from Belfast to Scotland. That would treat them differently than say a truck driving from London to Newcastle... it’s all the one country, you see.
How did the backstop come about?
Well, during the first stage of the Brexit negotiations more than a year ago, May agreed to the guarantee to keep Northern Ireland — and by extension the rest of the UK (because it’s all the same country as far as the DUP are concerned) in “regulatory alignment” with the EU.
Yep. That means the laws between the UK and the EU would be largely the same. And that’s a huge concession to those who voted Remain and who are opposed to a hard Brexit — and to Brussels.
So, why the big deal now?
Well, May hasn’t got enough votes to get the Brexit agreement passed. Most Brexiteers are opposed to the guarantee for the open border — the backstop — because they want more freedom down the road.
Do you know the funny thing?
In all the 585 pages of the Brexit agreement, the word ‘backstop’ doesn’t appear once. True. It’s simply referred to as the Northern Ireland protocol.