January 18, 2019
Why Dublin won't yield on the backstop
There can be little question that the Irish border backstop is the principal cause of the collapse of the first attempt to conclude a Brexit deal between the UK and the EU. Remove it and hey-ho, opponents ranging from Jacob Rees Mogg to Jeremy Corbyn via Arlene Foster lose one of their principal arguments, possibly ensuring the deal’s adoption by the House of Commons.
As its many critics in the Commons point out, neither side wants to apply the backstop anyway. It is, everyone solemnly swears, merely an insurance policy. But it is an awkward one which neither of the contracting parties can get out of without the other side’s agreement once the deal is ratified. In other words, while it is permitted to secede unilaterally from the EU, it is not permitted to secede (once adopted by both parties) from the backstop. As such, the insurance policy is clearly designed as a nuclear deterrent, one aiming to coerce both parties into negotiating a long-term trade and cooperation agreement, of such a nature that an open Irish border is permanently guaranteed without any backstop having to kick in.
Yet, as with every other deterrent, there is a drawback. If, because of the Westminster parliamentary arithmetic, the EU’s insistence on the Irish border backstop does become the one insurmountable obstacle to concluding any deal at all, then there will be no deal and border checks creating the dreaded hard Irish border will have to be set up anyway. And, if that is the case, had the government in Dublin not better be sensible and accept to water down the backstop, for instance by accepting to limit it in time, so as to facilitate a deal?
So far, EU solidarity with Dublin’s position has reigned supreme, much to the surprise and irritation of the UK side. But the closer we get to the car crash of a no-deal Brexit, the more publicly that question - still largely taboo in polite EU conversation - will be asked in other capitals. To put it bluntly, why should Germany’s car makers and their employees suffer to help avert a hard Irish border in theory, if a hard border is coming anyway in practice? Are the diesel drama, the downturn, the looming threat of US tariffs not bad enough?
For Dublin, the answer at this stage remains an emphatic no, and it takes some mental gymnastics and a quick look at old and recent Irish history to understand Ireland’s seemingly pigheaded intransigence on this.
It is no exaggeration to say that the English presence in Ireland has been a fraught topic for 850 years. The Good Friday agreement, concluded 20 years ago, was a so-far successful attempt to put to rest a history of centuries of violence that had features both of colonial oppression and resistance, and of civil war. Removing physical evidence for a border from the Irish landscape was part of the deal. Ireland looked united even if it wasn't legally. The catholic minority in Northern Ireland — many of whom are now holders of Irish passports — began to feel like less of a minority. And the protestant majority in Northern Ireland could still feel sufficiently at home. For the first time in centuries, Irish politics could move away from the problem of violence and embark on a course of normalisation, which has helped make the Republic of Ireland the success story it is today.
For the government in Dublin, agreeing to any permanent deal with the UK reviving the physical reality of an inner-Irish border would not just be potentially a political suicide. It would be like a betrayal of the greatest recent achievement of Irish history, the crowning glory in the struggle to achieve peace not just after decades, but after centuries.
If border checks have to go up as a result of no deal, it may look materially the same, but it is politically a different story. For one thing, the responsibility for the debacle would rest squarely with London, particularly as seen from the narrow vantage point of Irish nationalism. The government in Dublin would still be shielded from Irish nationalists’ accusation of having accepted some deal with London entailing the possibility of a return to border checks. To be clear, this is not just a question of appearances, but one of a possible revival of now-latent tensions in Irish politics, comporting a possible threat of Irish-on-Irish terrorism.
Just as importantly, the unspoken Irish gamble is that border checks as result of no deal would sooner or later be overcome. The hope is that the UK would find a no-deal relationship with the EU economically and politically so uncomfortable that reason would ultimately prevail. A chastened London would come back to the negotiating table to work out a deal with the EU entailing the restoration of an open inner-Irish border, this time for good.
Let us add a final quirk to the story. So sensitive is the issue that, for years, Leo Varadkar and his government have been lying to the Irish public about their obligation under the EU treaties to reintroduce border checks in the event of no deal - to preserve, as the phrase goes, the integrity of the single market. And, so patriotic is the Irish press, that for years this huge and most obvious fib was hardly called out in public. Varadkar has now joined the group of countries officially switching to no-deal preparations — France did so yesterday — but the government in Dublin is still trying to elude the reality of what this means: the dirty details are to be revealed on February 22 and not before.
Rationally, this seems not to make any sense at all. But that is precisely the point that other EU capitals will have to continue to deal with. The reason Dublin is acting as it does is because the forces at play here are not fully rational. If you doubt this, just listen to the DUP’s Arlene Foster talking about the apocalyptic consequences of a few border checks on either side of the Irish Sea.