After a late night dash to Strasbourg on March 11, the British prime minister, Theresa May, said she had agreed “legally binding” changes to the Brexit withdrawal agreement with the European Union. Designed to avoid the UK being kept indefinitely within the so-called Irish backstop, such changes were deemed key in order for MPs to agree to the Brexit deal in parliament. But the deal was still defeated on March 12 by 149 votes. Why was the Irish backstop such a sticking point?
There is a certain irony in the focus being on the UK getting out of the backstop rather than on avoiding falling into it in the first place. For the backstop is not the intended “landing point” for the UK after Brexit – as the documentation produced by the UK and EU late on March 11 reiterates. Instead, it is a safety net for Northern Ireland to fall into if the UK and EU fail to negotiate a future trade agreement that avoids a hard border by the end of the Brexit transition period.
In order for it to be fit for purpose, the arrangements for this safety net have had to be clearly spelled out before Brexit day. And because its function is primarily to avoid a hard border, the backstop is centred on Northern Ireland rather than the whole of the UK. This has produced a distorted picture of an unlikely-but-potential future relationship in which Northern Ireland remains much more closely tied to the EU than the rest of the UK.
The Democratic Unionist Party and other unionist parties in Northern Ireland have been vocally critical of the backstop as a result, worried that if the UK ended up in this position – be it by accident or design – it would lead to growing divergence within the UK. In a political atmosphere of heightened tension and dysfunction, particularly in the absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland, such concerns are particularly acute and not easily soothed.