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'There won't be a border because we don't want it!': What Brexiteers think of the backstop

We spoke to some Brexiteers outside Westminster about what they think of the ‘Irish protocol’.

BRITAIN-LONDON-BREXIT-PROTEST Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

…If I’d have been an Irishman I would have been Republican, because I believe in fairness. Since the Good Friday Agreement, peace in Northern Ireland has held, hasn’t it?

THERE’S A WELL intentioned apathy from Brexit demonstrators towards Ireland.

Talking to demonstrators who had gathered outside Westminster on Tuesday ahead of the fateful House of Commons vote on the Brexit deal, all spoke with a sympathetic tone when asked about their nearest neighbour. 

“The EU caused a housing crisis in Ireland,” was repeated in various versions three times by Brexit supporters, one of whom was corrected by his friend.

“There was never a trade border on the island of Ireland, we always had custom unity,” was the input of one Brexiteer, and in fairness, that same day DUP leader Arlene Foster said something similar.

“I won’t pretend to understand the Irish situation,” was repeated by four or five people, both Remainers and Leave voters, some of whom said it was unfortunate that Ireland was being pulled into this Brexit furore. 

On the issue of the backstop, which is the contentious part of the Brexit deal that aims to avoid a hard border in Ireland, they were less kind.

“We don’t want this deal as it’s done because it will mean that we are in the EU forever,” said Lynn, who’s a member of Ukip. “Because of the backstop, if we can’t agree a trade deal with the EU, well then the backstop will step in and we’ll be in the EU forever.”

Lynn and her friend Carol say that the backstop isn’t necessary, as all sides have said that they don’t want a hard border. 

“Surely,” Carol says, “being an independent country, we can decide if we put a border up there. It worked alright before, didn’t it?”

Many people said that British Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal would pass if it wasn’t for the backstop. But why the staunch opposition to the assurance of no border?

“Firstly, it isolates Northern Ireland from Great Britain,” Joshua, a young Leave supporter who works in Westminster, told TheJournal.ie.

“That’s a huge concern obviously – the Prime Minister said before that it would be ‘morally unacceptable’.

“And secondly, there’s no unilateral withdrawal from the backstop, which means it’s the only treaty in Britain’s history that we would sign up to which we can’t unilaterally withdraw from without the approval with the EU.”

If there could be some kind of change on the backstop, a time limit, or some kind of reasonable clause of exit that all sides can agree to, then everyone is satisfied.

Backtrack: what is the backstop?

Brexit Source: Niall Carson

The Irish backstop, which is referred to in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement as “the Protocol” is a promise that if all efforts to close a deal fail, that there will be “regulatory alignment” on the island of Ireland to avoid a hard border.

This would mean that rules and regulations in Northern Ireland would have to be similar to the EU’s/Ireland’s rules, to avoid customs checks or posts that would make up a hard border.

The backstop was first agreed between the EU, UK and Irish government in December 2017. Last year, arguments over the backstop put the entire Brexit deal, or the Withdrawal Agreement, in jeopardy as Brexiteer MPs said it wasn’t necessary and restricted the UK. The EU said that the backstop was vital to the agreement, in what was seen as a show of solidarity with Ireland.

Eventually, the two sides came to a compromise that allowed them to finalise a deal (pending approval from the EU and UK parliaments).

It would mean that there would be a UK-wide customs deal or “regulatory alignment”, rather than plans specific to Northern Ireland, which would ensure that there would be no border.

This would, however, limit the UK’s abilities to strike up new trade deals with non-EU countries after they leave, as they have committed to rules that are not theirs, and over which they would have no say in changing.

To be clear: Whether checks are necessary or not between Ireland and Northern Ireland is dependant on what rules and regulations the UK changes after it leaves. If they remain the same, or similar to the EU’s, a border isn’t necessary. But a core part of the Brexit vote was to regain sovereignty and control of its laws, hinting that they could be about to change dramatically.

The backstop is a guarantee that no matter what rules the UK decides to change, or what Prime Minister is in power, that a hard border will not appear in Ireland. 

Another problem that both Brexiteers have with the backstop is that it isn’t time-limited, meaning that if the EU and UK cannot strike up a free trade deal at the end of the next phase of negotiations (assuming they get that far), then the UK will be locked into what was meant to be a temporary arrangement in the form of the Irish backstop. 

Political practicalities 

Brexit Source: Peter Byrne

There’s fierce opposition to the backstop in the House of Commons; many estimate that May’s deal would pass if the backstop wasn’t included. The DUP are fiercely opposed to it; this is because they see imposing different customs rules or other regulations on Northern Ireland as a threat to its place in the United Kingdom.

There had been suggestions that to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, checks would only be carried out on goods and people at ports and airports. The DUP and a large number of other MPs are firmly opposed to this option, which is the border along the Irish Sea option, as it’s seen as another threat to the Union.

In response to attempts by EU leaders to pacify concerns around the backstop, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said that it only “bolstered” them.

At the DUP’s annual conference in November, the former UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, said that they should “junk the backstop”.

“Unless we junk this backstop, we are going to find that Brussels has got us exactly where they want us: a satellite state,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile, the Dublin government here has repeatedly said that the UK government provided a written assurance that there would be no hard border in the form of a backstop, and have repeatedly tried to help sell it to May’s parliamentarians.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that the British parliament “feared” the backstop, which wasn’t necessary

[Brexiteers and the DUP] have, in my view, turned the backstop into something that it isn’t, and have created fears around the backstop.
There’s no ulterior motive here, the backstop is an insurance mechanism to safeguard the peace process. The backstop is not something to be feared by the British parliament.

Behind the scenes,  Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s Cabinet seem adamant to not be the Irish government that allowed a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland, which in turn could lead to Trouble-era violence.

One exchange

United Kingdom: MPs Vote on Theresa May's Brexit Deal Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

One Brexiteer we spoke to named Graham was adamant that there was “no trade border” ever in Ireland, and later said that there never would be one in the future.

But when a border first went up in April 1924, there were customs posts put up along the border to monitor what passed between the two jurisdictions.

These customs posts were manned by officials only, until the IRA began targetting these posts as symbols of partition in a series of violent attacks. Police officers, and eventually armed British soldiers, were then sent to the customs posts to protect them.

Well there isn’t one now, and there won’t be one in the future because we don’t want it! The EU don’t want it, and the Remainers don’t want it. The Irish don’t want it, the UK don’t want it, and the EU don’t want it, so why are we worried about a border?

Before Christmas, the EU published its plans for a no-deal Brexit, and the preparations that were needed.

It says that there would need to be “simplified border controls” for live animals and animal products, hinting that some infrastructure would be needed.

But you check animals already, not across that border, going across the mainland of Ireland. And that’s fine, just leave that, Foot-and-Mouth disease doesn’t recoginse borders.

This would be a border along the Irish Sea, which is the other contentious issue for MPs.

Oh, over some cows and pigs? I don’t think Sinn Féin and the UDA are going to get too upset about some passports for some sheep and pigs.

The DUP, the party supporting Theresa May’s government since the 2017 snap election, do have a problem with that.

Well, they’ll have to get over it, I’m sure they have their red lines, but I’m sure they won’t have a problem, cause they haven’t got a problem with it at the moment.

There’s a chance that there will be more of those types of checks in the future, however.

What, more animals? The backstop isn’t a problem, there’s never going to be a border.

That is oft-repeated, but just weeks away from Brexit day on 29 March, it seems more uncertain than ever. The demonstrator turns and asks, with a smile:

Why, what do you think we should do? 

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