Be A Voice: The Irish Backstop Debate and Historical Naivety

By Campaign Agent Lyell Tweed

The spirit of the world wars and the British commonwealth is increasingly brought into the British political narrative as the date of Brexit rapidly approaches us- exemplified by the recent debates on Winston Churchill’s legacy. However, there seems to be very little mention of Britain’s dark history with Ireland, which much of the Brexit debate could be centred around. With 2019 marking Britain’s departure from the EU and the centenary anniversary of the Irish War of Independence, turbulent times could lie ahead. Discussions about the Irish border have come to dominate the Brexit debate over recent months for highly significant reasons. The increasingly likely event of a No-Deal Brexit, which would result in the UK cutting off from the Single Market and Customs Union, is building tensions between the UK and Ireland in the EU, damaging an already fragile relationship.

In December 2017 it seemed that this was resolved, to an extent, with the proposal of a ‘backstop’. The idea of having a ‘backstop’ at this time was an insurance policy to ensure that the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would remain completely open to trade, people and services in the event of a No-Deal Brexit. This appeared to the be the safest and most peaceful way of dealing with the relationship between the Republic and Northern Ireland in the event of a No-Deal. However, this agreement fell apart quickly and has not made much progress since. It was opposed by the DUP, who currently prop up Theresa May’s minority government, as they felt this would result in Northern Ireland being treated differently to the rest of the UK post-Brexit. More problems were created when May guaranteed that there would be ‘no regulatory barriers’ in the Irish sea, which in theory cannot be resolved unless the UK strikes a deal with the EU where it is allowed to remain in the Single market and Customs union, both of which are red lines for the prime minister.

The EU, along with the Republic of Ireland, still holds the position that the backstop described above is the only way to resolve any border issues. This keeps Northern Ireland subject to rules of the EU Customs Union and European Single Market, creating a ‘common regulatory area’ on the island of Ireland, allowing goods, services and people to move freely over the border. In contrast, the UK wants to resolve the Irish question through agreements on the future trading relationship. Any fall-back plan, according to the UK, should be time limited and apply to the whole of the UK- two points the EU refuses to accept, and this impasse shows no signs of being resolved anytime soon.

The lack of discussion over Ireland during the Brexit campaign, and the mess that Theresa May finds herself in now, could have disastrous consequences. The fact that Northern Ireland now finds itself in a political vacuum, after the collapse of the DUP and Sinn Fein’s power sharing in 2017, only adds to the instability of Brexit. Let us not forget that the border issue in Ireland was only ‘resolved’ in 1998 with the Good Friday agreement. This was a long, violent, process that brought an end to the Troubles which had been plaguing Northern Ireland since the Second World War. The border between the Republic and the North in this period was a heavily militarised zone with many ‘no-go zones’ in the capital, Belfast. It was only in the 90s, with the advent of the single market and eventually the Good Friday agreement, that allowed free movement between the countries, when the violence subsided. Brexit, and the naivety of our current politicians in the face of Brexit, threatens to take us back to this dark period.

The reality of a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland in the event of a No-Deal Brexit is a highly volatile situation. A UNESCO report has already stated that there would be a return to violence in Northern Ireland if there was a hard border due to No-Deal Brexit, and that it was not a question of if violence would return but the scale of it. Only last month, a suspected ‘New IRA’ bomb attack occurred in Derry, an area where much of the violence occurred during the Troubles due to its proximity to the Republic/Northern border- a stark reminder that past sentiments still exist amongst parts of the population.

Memories and memorials to the Irish Famine (1845-1849) and the original IRA stand as a reminder to many in the Republic of Ireland’s long, dark, history with the UK. And you only need to go back to 1998 to see any signs of improvement to this. But, if Brexit within the island of Ireland is not properly dealt with, it is not unjustified to think that Republican sentiments around the border and Northern Island could reappear in their worst form. It is evident why this issue has dominated Brexit discussions in recent times, but with the prospect of a No-Deal Brexit little over a month away, and no backstop safety net to pin any hope to, there should be a real cause for concern if modern history is anything to go by.

Sources and Further Reading