How the Irish backstop emerged as May’s Brexit nemesis

The  possibility of the UK leaving the European Union blared like an air-raid siren in Government Buildings, the quadrangle of Portland stone and Wicklow granite in central Dublin that houses the taoiseach’s office. Officials summoned politicians, diplomats, business leaders, farming groups, academics and others to the complex off Upper Merrion Street. The guests climbed a beechwood staircase with a stained glass window, My Four Green Fields, representing Ireland’s four provinces.

At the improvised summit all agreed that Britain’s exit from the EU would present an unprecedented threat to Irish interests. They agreed to meet monthly to brainstorm – discussions which led to a task force, a strategy, a plan.

This was 2015. Few people had even heard of the word Brexit. It was a year before David Cameron called the referendum, two years before Theresa May declared “red lines” over the UK’s withdrawal. It was three years before she agreed to the Irish border backstop as an option and signed the withdrawal agreement that triggered a breakdown in Westminster.

The roots of the UK’s political and constitutional crisis spread far and wide: decades of anti-EU propaganda, a Tory party civil war, a reckless Cameron gamble, a dogged, blinkered successor, a divided Labour party. And with a starring role, the backstop.

A term once confined to rounders and baseball, it refers to an insurance policy to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the event of the UK’s no-deal departure. The Irish government persuaded the EU to make the backstop a condition of the UK’s withdrawal.

Supporters, including Tony Blair and John Major, say it is needed to protect the 1998 Good Friday agreement which drew a line under the Troubles and ended a three-decade conflict that claimed more than 3,600 lives. They say the return of border controls and infrastructure could wreck the peace process.

Brexiters call the backstop a trap which could chain the UK to Brussels in a de facto customs union and undermine the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.


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