Thursday 19 September 2019

Mary C Murphy: 'Northern Ireland-only backstop may be Johnson's last option'

What will British PM Boris Johnson do if he succeeds in winning the next election, asks Mary C Murphy

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters

Mary C Murphy

At the end of an extraordinarily tumultuous week in British politics, the scene now appears to be set for a UK general election in November. That election is shaping up to be one of the most divisive and bitter election campaigns in British history. It will double as a referendum on Brexit. The outcome of the vote will effectively determine once and for all the manner of the UK's exit from the EU. Unionists may need to steel themselves for the return of the Northern Ireland-only backstop.

Current electoral indications are that the Conservative Party will secure the largest vote in the next UK general election. Despite the increasingly toxic tensions and divisions within the party, it is possible that the Tory party, led by Boris Johnson, will lead the next British government.

Johnson wants out of the EU 'do or die', and he is staking his political career on sticking to that promise. So what will he do if he succeeds in winning the next election?

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A strong political mandate will certainly enable and empower him to pursue his Brexit ambitions with renewed vigour. However, given the enshrining in law of opposition to a no-deal Brexit, Johnson will have little choice but to pursue a negotiated route out of the EU. Free of the DUP harness, he will be in a better position to consider alternative exit avenues which include a Northern Ireland-only backstop.

The current Withdrawal Agreement was put to the House of Commons on three separate occasions, but failed to muster the necessary support for it to become law. Conservative Party Brexiteers objected because it potentially locks the UK into the EU customs union in perpetuity. This would prevent the achievement of a key Brexiteer objective by limiting the UK's ability to negotiate trade deals with other countries after Brexit.

DUP opposition was focused explicitly on the backstop and how - if activated - it would require minimal checks on a small number of goods coming into Northern Ireland from the UK. This prospect was unacceptable to the DUP for how it was perceived to differentiate and to distance Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

This current version of the Withdrawal Agreement superseded an earlier iteration of the deal. The original Withdrawal Agreement agreed in December 2017 between the UK government and European Commission contained a Northern Ireland-only backstop. This allowed the UK to leave both the single market and the customs union, but kept Northern Ireland aligned with single market and customs union rules. The proposal was vigorously opposed by the DUP because it was perceived to create a so-called 'border down the Irish Sea'.

Then prime minister Theresa May was effectively compelled to renegotiate the original Withdrawal Agreement and to give the backstop a UK, as opposed to a Northern Ireland, character. However, if Johnson wins the November election and secures a majority, the Northern Ireland-only backstop may well be back on the agenda.

The simple fact is that if a victorious and malleable prime minister, Johnson, wants a deal which equates to a hard Brexit, but simultaneously prevents a hard Border on the island of Ireland, this option is an arrangement currently acceptable to the EU. It is also the only proposition even vaguely capable of garnering the support of Tory party Brexiteers whose ultimate and over-riding aim is for the UK to leave the customs union and single market.

The prime minister's previous form suggests that he is capable of modifying, even abandoning, his (rather flaky) opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop.

Johnson will, of course, spin any 'new' deal as a renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement, but in truth it will be nothing more than a repackaging of the original Withdrawal Agreement which contains the Northern Ireland-only backstop.

Unionism in Northern Ireland will rail against any revival of this version of the backstop. Unionists have long occupied a dubious place where they are perpetually wary of Dublin's intentions, but simultaneously feel vulnerable to a British government that often misunderstands them.

There are many historic examples of unionist fears thwarting and preventing political progress in Northern Ireland, based on an inability to trust not just nationalists, but also the British and Irish governments, and linked to a deeply harboured suspicion that the creation, institutionalisation and consolidation of cross-border relationships and arrangements might potentially produce a drift towards a united Ireland.

In reality, none of these earlier political and institutional developments elevated the prospect or likelihood of a united Ireland. If anything, they did the opposite. They solidified and reinforced the status quo in Northern Ireland.

By sharing the unionist view that the backstop undermines the constitutional integrity of the UK, the prime minister has legitimised and stoked unionist constitutional anxieties and insecurities.

Johnson's cavalier and careless posturing confirms and validates unionist fears that the backstop is motivated by some sort of nefarious plot to achieve a united Ireland.

There is no evidence to suggest that the backstop is motivated by anything other than a desire to prevent a hard Border on the island of Ireland, to respect the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and to maintain the status quo in Northern Ireland.

Following the next election, Boris Johnson will face a formidable task in persuading unionists that any 'new' Withdrawal Agreement does not mean calamity for Northern Ireland's place in the UK.

As the most loyal of British subjects, Northern Ireland unionists need and deserve respect, reassurance and guarantees from their prime minister. Johnson has not offered this kind of support. Instead, his reckless and ill-considered pursuit of Brexit has revealed a limited understanding of Ireland and Irish nationalism, and has played into, rather than allayed, unionist constitutional fears.

Johnson has done a deep disservice to Ulster unionism by pitching the backstop as an existential threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom rather than a unique opportunity for Northern Ireland.

Should he revert to the Northern Ireland-only backstop in November, unionists will feel deeply betrayed. Determinedly recasting and reframing this Brexit exit option as opportunity and not threat for Northern Ireland unionism will require every sinew of Boris Johnson's increasingly strained political muscle.

Mary C Murphy is a senior lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics, University College Cork, and the author of Europe & Northern Ireland's Future: Negotiating Brexit's Unique Case (Agenda Publishing 2018).

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