Understanding Brexit and the Backstop

Introduction to Brexit —

In 2016 the Brexit vote sent shockwaves around the European Union. The United Kingdom’s decision to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of Europe set in motion its departure from the EU, and with it brought many challenges to both. 

Arguably the biggest of these challenges is how to keep the UK as a union while maintaining peace on the island of Ireland and still respecting the Good Friday Agreement. One of the biggest intractable issues between the two has been the issue of Northern Ireland and the “backstop,” which they’ve spent the last two years negotiating a deal on. It is this very backstop that has resulted in the House of Commons rejecting the Brexit deal and has ultimately led to the resignation of British Prime Minister Theresa May. 

So what is the backstop?

The backstop ensures that the border between the Republic of Ireland (made up of 26 counties) and Northern Ireland (part of the UK, made up of 6 counties) remains open, whatever the final outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

This, in effect, means that Northern Ireland as part of the UK would have to remain inside the European customs union and therefore trade in line with European regulations.

In doing this, Northern Ireland would have to remain closely aligned to the EU while the rest of the UK could be more lax about European regulations. But this is where things get complicated… 

Many people in Northern Ireland feel that this breaks up the union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK due to the fact that Northern Ireland would be trading with the EU on different terms as the rest of Britain and the ‘hard’ border between the EU and Great Britain would essentially be somewhere in the Irish sea.

But why would it be so controversial to have a border on the island of Ireland?

Under the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, the island of Ireland was split up in two, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (part of the UK). Northern Ireland was made up of two distinct ethno-nationalist groups: protestant-unionists who were loyal to the British monarchy and Catholic-nationalists who believed that Ireland should be a single sovereign country run from a parliament in Dublin. What resulted was years of bloody sectarian conflict between the two groups. This period was known as The Troubles where over 3,500 people died between 1969 and 2001. 

It was the Good Friday Agreement that brought a formal end to the Troubles in 1998, allowing a government in Northern Ireland that would sit at Stormont and the removal of the hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that had been manned by military personnel during the turmoil. Since, there has been great efforts to ensure peace in Northern Ireland by the Irish government, the government at Westminster, the devolved government at Stormont, and by the international community. 

The United States took a particular interest in the peace process and in 1995 a US Special Envoy for Northern Ireland was appointed. Still, while on a recent trip to Ireland in April of this year Nancy Pelosi called the peace process a “beacon to the world.” 

The hard work that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement has brought peace and stability to Northern Ireland, however the fragility of the peace in Northern Ireland has been omnipresent throughout Brexit negotiations and is one of the main reasons the EU stands so firm on the backstop being a part of a final Brexit deal. 

The fragility of the peace process was recently brought to the forefront when Lyra McKee, a 29-year-old journalist from Northern Ireland, was shot dead during rioting in Derry in April.

Placing a hard border on the island of Ireland could jeopardize the peace process and further reignite sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland.

However, at the same time many unionists who remain in a strong union with Britain do not agree with the idea that Northern Ireland would be trading with the EU on different terms than the rest of the UK and that a border would indeed exist in the Irish sea.

What happens next?

The UK has not yet agreed on a deal with the EU. Firstly, the UK could agree to the current deal which includes the backstop, but this is unlikely to ever pass in the House of Commons due to the fact that many people feel it breaks up the Union. Secondly, the UK could try and renegotiate a deal which would also include the backstop as it seems the EU are unwilling to renege on this. Thirdly, the UK could leave the European Union without a deal which would result in a hard border on the island of Ireland. 

The peace that has been maintained on Ireland since The Good Friday Agreement is incredibly important for all parties involved. It is up to politicians in the UK and the EU to ensure that a deal can be reached that puts peace first. 

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