There are few parts of life in the UK that the Brexit saga does not seem to have impacted, as the normal cycle of political events have been hijacked by the prospect of the UK leaving the EU. With just weeks to go until the Halloween deadline, stockpiling food and medicine, fuel rationing and travel chaos have become daily news topics. This is hardly a sign of good times ahead!
In many ways, Brexit has sucked the oxygen out of traditional politics and the parliamentary process, with all other urgent issues demoted to the back burner. However, one issue has come to dominate the parliamentary and public debate: the Irish backstop.
The original meaning of the term “backstop” comes from the sport of cricket. The “backstop” player is placed behind the batter and catcher, to catch the ball, just in case it sneaks through and runs out of bounds. As a central part of the Withdrawal Agreement signed by the EU and the UK, the backstop has forced its way to the top of everyone’s list of priorities. While this would seem to be grounds for optimism and unity, in reality, it has become a source of division as each side sees the backstop in very different terms.
So, what is the purpose of the backstop and why is it so controversial? The backstop was designed as an insurance policy, remember the cricket application? But instead of stopping a ball running out of bounds, the Irish backstop is designed to prevent a worst-case scenario of a no-deal Brexit triggering a land border on the island of Ireland. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the Republic of Ireland and the UK, including Northern Ireland, would technically become two distinct customs zones, thereby necessitating customs checks on the border.
So, why is the return of a land border so worrisome? I will focus on two main reasons. First, there has not been such a land border since the early 1990s, when the creation of the European Union’s Single Market among all its member states effectively eliminated customs controls and regulatory divergence within the EU. To all intents and purposes, Ireland and the UK became a single market, with the same trade regulations, legal foundation and environmental standards. Economically, this helped to boost trade on all sides but more importantly, it triggered a natural process of industrial and economic integration among businesses that were formally in different national markets. Since 1993, the economy in Ireland as a whole has increased dramatically and the Single Market has played a large part in that.
What does this mean in practice? In many sectors, there is already a single island market, which the absence of a border has helped promote. For example, there is a single island electricity network, owned by the Republic’s electricity provider, the ESB. Moreover, one third of all Northern Irish milk travels to the Republic for processing, and then crosses back. Even the famous Guinness trucks, called the “silver bullets” travel between Dublin and Belfast about 20,000 times a year for canning and packaging.
The reintroduction of a border to this environment would jeopardize the decades of integration on the island that has benefited all sides. Adding layers of customs controls and regulatory inspections that a border would create, would be catastrophic for thousands of firms and tens of thousands of employees.
The second reason for concern at a returning border is security and social stability. For decades, Northern Ireland was the scene of a slow-burning civil war between its Nationalist and Unionist communities that cost over 3,000 lives. This dark period, referred to understatedly as the “Troubles” finally came to a conclusion with the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, brokered by Irish, British, European and American parties. For 20 years, this agreement has stood the test of time, despite a few wobbles, mainly because it installed a foundation of trust among former enemies that, quite frankly, has been a blueprint for other sectarian conflicts around the world. In Ireland, we are proud of this agreement and the political and economic dividend it has created for over a generation.
One of the pillars of the GFA is the unquestioned impartiality of the Irish and British governments, it underpins mutual trust and confidence, where neither government can be seen as taking sides. Another pillar is the shared membership of the EU, a major source of political and economic capital in the region. The genius of the agreement was using the EU single market as a means of eliminating the need to pick a side. Under its terms, natives of Northern Ireland were not forced to choose a side, they could have whichever nationality or religious identity they desired. The GFA effectively removed the obligation to choose a side, as now all sides benefited from the same rights and privileges.
So where does Brexit fit into this? While it is a monument to political achievement, the GFA is built on mutual trust, which makes it extremely fragile. Make no mistake, the people who led the violence on each side are still very much present, and sectarian resentment still simmers under the surface. The reintroduction of a land border would not necessarily mean a return to violence but it would give those who are so-inclined to target customs officers, customs infrastructure and police that a land border would necessitate.
The final point to be made concerns democracy and the will of the people. The people of Northern Ireland voted clearly against Brexit in 2016 because they recognized the dangers inherent in a new border. Interestingly, the border failed to figure in any significant mainland debate before the referendum, suggesting a fundamental misunderstanding in London of the consequences for the region. Unfortunately for the people of Northern Ireland, the majority of the British population voted for Brexit, thereby carrying the day. Even more unfortunately for them, their regional government has been suspended since early 2017, leaving them with no single representative voice in London. In the end, this disadvantage may prove to be the most debilitating at such a crucial time for Northern Ireland.
Peter Moloney is a lecturer in Skidmore College's Department of Management and Business.
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