Saturday 21 September 2019

Kevin Doyle: 'Forget alternative arrangements - alternative words will be used to justify backstop by another name'

Stock photo: AFP/Getty Images
Stock photo: AFP/Getty Images
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

When it comes to Brexit, predictions are preposterous, but here's one anyway - the backstop will be dropped.

It may have officially made it into the Collins Dictionary only last year, but the word now has toxic connotations.

Even with some optimism that a Brexit deal can be done, it's hard to see how British Prime Minister Boris Johnson or hard-line unionists could ever sign up to the backstop.

But that doesn't mean they won't ultimately embrace the concept of a system that may be used if no other pact is made. There appears to be a softening of attitudes toward the idea of an all-island solution to the Irish border problem. It was the obvious answer from the start, and had the support of Theresa May, before the DUP pulled the rug from under her.

Arlene Foster insisted that Northern Ireland could not, under any circumstances except the ones that were her party's conservative requirements, be treated different from the UK mainland. As a result, Mrs May demanded that the EU extend the backstop to the whole of the UK which it eventually did despite initially saying that it crossed a line.

That was almost a year ago now and the House of Commons has spent that time arguing back and forth about whether it was all a cunning plan by the EU to trap the UK.

It's often forgotten that Boris Johnson actually voted for the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, on one occasion. He now argues very forcefully that it's "anti-democratic".

As she headed for London yesterday, Ms Foster repeated the line that the backstop would leave Northern Ireland "in a separate customs union from the rest of the United Kingdom".

But she is now dealing with a prime minister who no longer requires her support because he has lost so many of his own MPs.

Mr Johnson can easily cut her loose, safe in the knowledge that a majority of business and farming groups in the North are pragmatic enough to realise the backstop is an attempt to make the best of a bad situation.

The prime minister is legally obliged to do a deal or renege on his "do or die", "dead in a ditch", "come what may" promise to deliver Brexit on October 31.

The easiest and quickest way to do that is to use the mechanisms already agreed but add a few tweaks that he can claim are concessions by the EU.

We may yet find ourselves looking for 'alternative words' rather than alternative arrangements.

One of his predecessor's biggest mistakes (and there were many) was to underplay the significance of the EU caving in on a UK-wide backstop.

From an Irish perspective, the language isn't really that important so long as the inevitable checks on goods and animals are carried out on ferries and at ports rather than along the 500km land border.

A backstop by any other name will smell just as sweet if it moves Brexit forward.

Irish Independent

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