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Why Brexiteers see the backstop as a 'non-story', 'irrelevant' and an EU trick

The Irish government’s refusal to outline what a hard border would look like in a no-deal Brexit has caused confusion among Brexiteers.

Image: Danny Lawson

AT A BREXIT Party conference in Wales, any mention of the backstop is treated with confusion and dismissal, ending in the same retort: 

“The Taoiseach said there wouldn’t be a hard border anyway.”

Although Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently admitted that there would be checks on or around the Irish border area in the event of a no-deal Brexit, you can see why that would be confusing.

The backstop was proposed as an insurance policy within the Withdrawal Agreement. It was meant to be used in case a future trade deal meant that the EU and UK customs rules were so different that a hard border on the island of Ireland would have been needed.

This border could vary from cameras to check licence plates and random “pop-up” checks, to custom posts with Revenue officials manning them checking documentation as was the case before.

A police or army force could have been needed to protect those custom posts if they became targets of dissidents as symbols of a divided Ireland – as was the case when the border was first erected

More details of what kind of border we would need aren’t available because we’re unsure of the level of divergence there would be from the UK away from EU rules and regulations – which was one of the strongest arguments the Leave campaign used to argue in favour of Brexit.

Varadkar and the Irish government have been loathe to share details about what a border would look like, as conjuring up a physical infrastructure holds political sensitivities.

One of the results of this seems to be a basic misunderstanding of what the backstop is: instead of it being used as a back-up to avoid a border by temporarily matching Northern Ireland’s rules and regulations with the EU’s, it’s been labelled as an unnecessary tool of the bureaucratic EU.

In the audience of the Newport Wales Brexit Party conference, a couple get into a discussion about Brexit.

The man, whose mother is from Tipperary and who runs his own business says: “That square mile, that Westminster bubble does not run this country. People like me go out, earn the money to pay their wages so they can sit there and treat us like idiots.”

When speaking about Northern Ireland, the woman says: “The Irish have been fighting with the Irish whether they [have the backstop or not]. They’re still at it now, and there’s still a border now. ”

Another member of the Newport audience, who is a health worker, says that although she wants a no-deal Brexit if the UK can’t agree to a deal with the EU, there’s “no simple answer” to the Irish border/backstop question.

“It’s unrealistic. Life doesn’t have simple answers.”

The Brexit Party’s thoughts

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, one of Wales’ four MEPs Nathan Gill said that the backstop “is the only thing that the EU can focus on, it’s the only thing that they think they have as a way of delaying or stopping or changing or whatever it is that they’re trying to do”.

“I genuinely believe it’s a non-story. The Taoiseach has said ‘We’re not building a hard border’…” he begins, before he’s interrupted to be told that the Taoiseach said recently that there would be a hard border.  

“Okay, so he’ll be the one to build a border of sorts, the British aren’t going to do it, the EU’s not going to do it. And by checks, what are we talking about? literally, border checks?”

The EU stated in its no-deal plans that there would have to be animal sanitary checks along EU borders with third countries – which is the Northern Ireland-Ireland border.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker confirmed this last week: “An animal entering Northern Ireland without border control can enter the European Union without any kind of control via the southern part of the Irish island. This cannot happen.”

Nathan Gill continues: “I’d be surprised if they actually do that. I think it’s all rhetoric that they’re giving right now. I think the reality of all of this is, right now Northern Ireland has a different Vat regimes to southern Ireland (sic), there are differences in all kinds of areas, but they just get on with it. And it’s companies that trade with companies, it’s not nations that trade with nations, and never has been.

“Let the people get on with it. Government, get out the way, and all will be well.”

When it’s suggested that a border is necessary to enforce the different rules there would be between the UK and the EU post-Brexit, Gill says: 

Are you saying that midnight [on the 31 October], we are going to diverge from the EU rules? Are we going to suddenly become a third world country? Of course we’re not. How could we? It’s impossible.

“I mean, that divergence itself would take years to happen.

“If in Ireland, they want to sell their milk – I’m not sure what they have to do to milk to make it sellable into the EU – but make sure they do that. But if they’re going to sell that milk in Belfast, we don’t need to do that. And that’s it. It’s not rocket science.

“And, if I’m going to be selling my products in southern Ireland (sic), then the same thing must happen with Irish farmers and with Ireland if Britain does start to diverge and change our rules and our legislation, then Irish farmers should make sure that they abide by what Westminster says.

But it’s going to take years and years for that to happen. Overnight, it would be an absolute nonsense of anybody to have border checks.

When asked about the threat to security in Northern Ireland and along the border, Gill simply says: “If nutjobs want an excuse to do something crazy, then they’ll find an excuse. But if you’re just a normal, sensible human, then you’re not going to do those things.”

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage later told the conference that the Irish border/backstop question was “very difficult to provide an answer for”.

[The EU's negotiator] Michel Barnier said ‘Let’s provide the question for which it is very difficult to provide an answer’. And you’ve got to say, the truth of it is, he is very much better [at] this than Olly Robbins [Theresa May's main negotiator in Brussels] who was on our side.

“He’s boxed us in! He’s boxed us in! Mrs May accepted the principle of the backstop, and we’ve been in trouble ever since.”

He also said that there would be no hard border, because Leo Varadkar, the European Union, and the UK all said that there would be no hard border.

When speaking to TheJournal.ie in Newport, the Chair of the Brexit Party Richard Tice said that trade across the Northern Irish border was such a “tiny percentage” that it was “irrelevant” in the grand scheme of Brexit.

A Brexit Party spokesperson said of Ireland’s role in Brexit negotiations:

“Ireland is going to regret being used as a stick to beat the UK. That’s what I think.”

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