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Explained: Why Irish Backstop could derail more than just seamless Brexit

The border between Ireland and the UK is the only significant land border between the UK and the rest of the EU, and Brexit negotiations have recognised the Irish border issue as one of the three most important issues any withdrawal agreement would need to satisfactorily resolve.

By: Explained Desk | Updated: August 1, 2019 7:01:20 am
Irish Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee, right, and recently appointed French Minister for Europe Ameile de Montchalin stand on the Republic of Ireland side of the border during a fact-finding visit to the old Ravensdale border crossing between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, Friday July 19, 2019. (Brian Lawless/PA via AP)

By Rudra Mani Tripathi

Following Boris Johnson’s election as leader of the UK’s Conservative Party and his subsequent appointment as Prime Minister of the UK, the new head of government has proposed a trade deal with the US as a means of offsetting the economic impact of Brexit on the UK. Donald Trump responded by offering a “very substantial” deal, promising that trade would go up between both countries.

Before the enactment of any such deal, however, it must be ratified by the US House of Representative, which has recently proven to be inimical to any such deal if Brexit jeopardises the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The news of the deal was met by bipartisan opposition in the US, with both Republicans and Democrats voicing their unwillingness to go through with a trade deal with the UK in the event that a no-deal Brexit leads to a violation of the Good Friday Agreement. Speaker of the House of Representative Nancy Pelosi said that there was “no chance whatsoever” of a US-UK trade deal being passed by Congress under these circumstances, and a committee of former Congress members and foreign policy officials expressed support for Pelosi’s stance, The Guardian reports.

What is the Good Friday Agreement?

The Good Friday Agreement, signed on Friday the 10th of April, 1998, was the agreement that ended The Troubles — a decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland between the Unionists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the UK, and the Republicans, who wanted Northern Ireland to leave the UK and unify with the Republic of Ireland. Over the course of the late 20th century, the Troubles claimed nearly 3,600 lives, and only ended with the Good Friday Agreement, which ended direct rule from London in Northern Ireland, among other things, replacing it with a devolved system of government with power going to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the North/South Ministerial Council and the British–Irish Council.

The Good Friday Agreement also covered the question of the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Three institutions were created between the two regions, the North/South Ministerial Council, the North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association, and the North/South Consultative Forum.

The Agreement also led to the decommissioning of weapons used in the conflict by paramilitary groups, and the formation of an independent commission whose task it was to review policing arrangements in Northern Ireland. In July 2005, the IRA, the primary belligerent on the Republican side, announced that it had formally ended its campaign. Furthermore, the agreement made multiple provisions for the promotion of human rights, equality of opportunity, and the defusing of sectarian tensions.

What is the current state of the Irish border?

Presently, the border between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom is the only significant land border between the UK and the rest of the EU, and the negotiations for the withdrawal of the UK from the EU have recognised the Irish border issue as one of the three most important issues any withdrawal agreement would need to satisfactorily resolve.

The governments of both Ireland and the UK have stated their desire to avoid a “hard” border, that is, a border marked by checkpoints and supervised crossing posts.

Since around 2005, the presence of physical infrastructure on the Irish border has been practically non-existent, with only a single sign on an uninterrupted road bearing a welcome message and a change from miles per hour to kilometres per hour, or vice versa. The existence of such a border was made possible by the processes that began with the Good Friday Agreement, and tensions are currently rising about the implications of the development of a hard border with regards to the peace in Northern Ireland.

When the question of Brexit arose, so too emerged the Northern Ireland Protocol, also known as the Irish Backstop. The Backstop is a treaty appended to the withdrawal agreement, which proposes if no better alternative are reached, then even in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Northern Ireland may remain within the European Union Customs Union and the Single Market, in order to prevent a hard border. However, the Backstop is yet to be ratified, in part due to opposition from Unionists within Northern Ireland.

What are the implications of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?

All parties involved in the issue of the Irish border, the governments of the UK and Republic of Ireland, as well as the EU, are opposed to the hard border and do not wish to see one in place, because of the historically sensitive nature of the border.

A hard border would dramatically slow down trade between Ireland and the UK. Cross-border trade will be additionally be slowed because of the different systems of rules and regulations that will emerge in the UK post Brexit.

More symbolically, and perhaps more importantly, however, is the fact that a hard border is a callback to a time of great unrest in the region. In some ways, the open border serves as a symbolic concession to those who would’ve rather had Northern Ireland unify with the Republic of Ireland, and the establishment of a hard border would be seen as a slap in the face to Republicans, likely inflaming tensions. The sense of amicability that has begun to develop in the short years of peace following the troubles would be disrupted, and a hard border would serve as a reminder of the hostilities that still simmer below the surface in Northern Ireland. A hard border creates the possibility of reigniting a decades long conflict and tearing apart the UK.

(Rudra Mani Tripathi is a student of Ashoka University and an intern with The Indian Express)

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