January 17, 2019
How Irish insistence on backstop backfired
Newton Emerson looks at what the Westminster debacle means for Ireland, concluding that the Irish strategy to insist on a backstop has backfired. Not only did it not solve the problem of securing the Belfast agreement, it also worsened the relationship between the UK and Ireland. In a poll last weekend, only a few British conservatives named the backstop as a reason to oppose the withdrawal agreement. A majority among them focused on the agreement to extend the backstop provisions to the whole of the UK.
The Irish have sold the backstop as a sine qua non to secure the Belfast agreement in all its parts. The need for a backstop has often been expressed as a prerogative question of trust. This is linked on the perception that that Brexit breaches the Belfast Agreement, a mistaken but persistent conclusion according to Emerson. Now that the UK cannot guarantee any deal at all, it is worth revising this Irish negotiation tactic and thinking about new ways of rebuilding trust between the two countries.
This starts with re-establishing consensus on what the Belfast Agreement means. The backstop and the Belfast agreement should be considered on their own merits. At the very least, so Emerson, the number of Brexit problems viewed as potential breaches should be reduced by both sides to a shorter shared list. This would require Ireland to negotiate with the UK bilaterally, something they have been reluctant to do so as not to upset anyone in the EU. But if the objective is to secure the Belfast Agreement in all its parts, it may be necessary to make this work again.