Brexit and the Irish backstop: Where are we now?

Theresa May's public recognition of the realities of the Norther Irish border in her Commons speech withdrawing the Meaningful Vote was, says Jonathan Evershed, much too little and far too late. 
Almost from the moment the term ‘backstop’ entered the Brexit lexicon just over one year ago, it became painfully clear that it was the issue on which Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement would, ultimately, rise or fall. And in the House of Commons yesterday (10 December), the Prime Minister finally acknowledged the inevitable clash of Brexit fantasy with the brute reality of the Irish border and the UK’s commitments under the terms of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. It is worth quoting from her statement here at some length, as it outlines in stark and exact terms the problem to which precisely no viable alternative solutions have so far been proffered either by the Brexiteers on May’s back-benches or by a Labour front-bench wedded to its own brand of Brexit cakeism:  

“I set out in my speech opening the debate last week the reasons why the backstop is a necessary guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland and why, whatever future relationship you want, there is no deal available that does not include the backstop. Behind all those arguments are some inescapable facts: the fact that Northern Ireland shares a land border with another sovereign state; the fact that the hard-won peace that has been built in Northern Ireland over the last two decades has been built around a seamless border; and the fact that Brexit will create a wholly new situation.

"On 30 March the Northern Ireland-Ireland border will for the first time become the external frontier of the European Union’s single market and customs union. The challenge this poses must be met not with rhetoric but with real and workable solutions. Businesses operate across that border. People live their lives crossing and re-crossing it every day. I have been there and spoken to some of those people; they do not want their everyday lives to change as a result of the decision we have taken. They do not want a return to a hard border. And if this House cares about preserving our Union, it must listen to those people, because our Union will only endure with their consent.” 

It is difficult not to feel more than a little frustrated that May did not use any of her earlier set-piece speeches, including during multiple visits to Northern Ireland, to outline these facts – so glaringly obvious to those of us watching Brexit unfold from across the Irish Sea – in such unambiguous terms. That the contents of the Attorney General’s legal advice on the backstop appeared to come as such a surprise to so many in Westminster is itself surprising, given that it was little more than a re-statement of what the backstop has been all along: ‘unless and until’.
Debate on the backstop is indicative of what remains a degree of – at this stage, astonishingly wilful – ignorance on the part of MPs on both sides of the House as to the scale, scope and consequences of the UK’s relationship with Ireland or its obligations in the North (where May’s deal and its backstop enjoy strong popular support), during and after Brexit. It is unclear what difference might be made to this state of affairs by any hasty renegotiation of the terms of the UK’s exit. But in the end, there is no alternative Brexit deal without an Irish border backstop. Full stop. And this remains true regardless as to what form of future relationship with the EU this or any other Prime Minister may wish to pursue. It has taken May too long to admit this, and time is running out for her to bring her detractors up to speed. 

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Jonathan Evershed's picture
University College Cork
11th December 2018
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