Three reasons the Irish backstop is actually a good thing

Opinion piece (Prospect)
Sam Lowe
14 March 2019

The Westminster debate on the Irish backstop is deeply divisive. This protocol would see Northern Ireland remain de facto in the single market for goods, and the whole UK in a customs union, in the event that another solution is not found. Much of the moaning from Brexiters has been with regard to the constraints a whole UK customs union (something actually asked for by the UK) would place on an independent trade policy. For the DUP, the problem is increased regulatory checks down the Irish sea, which in their view threatens Northern Ireland’s status as an integral part of the United Kingdom.

There are strong feelings on all sides. But here are three reasons the backstop is actually a good thing for Northern Ireland.

It works

Both the UK and EU have committed to ensuring no physical infrastructure or associated checks on the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, no matter what. This is a sensible approach given the region remains volatile and in the midst of an ongoing peace process. The proposed backstop just about achieves that. Admittedly, it still requires some adaptation from businesses—for example goods produced in Northern Ireland requiring third-party certification would need to obtain it from an EU27-based notified body, unlike now—but an everyday person or trader living and working across the border would likely see little change from now, were it to be implemented.

No other proposal to date achieves this. While we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that a combination of a future UK-EU economic partnership and technological solutions could achieve something similar, such a solution is dependent on the yet to be agreed future relationship. Hence the need for a backstop.

It places NI in an advantageous position, relative to Britain

With Northern Ireland remaining effectively embedded both within the EU’s single market for goods and the internal market of the UK, it places the territory in the advantageous position of having a foot in both camps. This makes Northern Ireland relatively more attractive to manufacturing firms hoping to sell to buyers both in the EU27 and the UK. Would it be enough to offset the damaging economic impacts of Brexit? Probably not, but it at least gives Northern Ireland a unique selling point from which to base its recovery.

It has public support

When the Northern Ireland perspective on the backstop does eventually get a look in, it is largely from the perspective of the hostile DUP. But while the DUP are most certainly a legitimate voice in the Northern Irish debate, they are not the only one.

Entering into the backstop would result in some additional controls and checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain (however not necessarily goods going in the opposite direction). While controls already exist in the form of checks at the Port of Larne on live animals imported from GB, what we are talking about is a notable expansion. While there is significantly more scope for these checks to be mitigated and moved away from the border—what with the UK being ultimately in charge of monitoring compliance on both sides of the Irish sea—there will inevitably be an uptick in bureaucracy for traders selling from GB to NI and this shouldn’t be ignored.

However, a majority of Northern Irish businesses, civil society and indeed members of the public, are prepared to live with the backstop as a compromise option. Sixty-five per cent of respondents to one poll expressed a preference for Northern Ireland remaining within the EU’s customs union and single market while Britain has a more arm’s length relationship.

It would have been best for Northern Ireland for the 2016 referendum to never have happened. And if Brexit is to take place, the best case scenario is for a deep and comprehensive agreement between the whole UK and EU that removes the need for any signs of a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. But as an ultimate failsafe, the backstop provides an insurance policy, not only against future arrangements failing to materialise or falling apart, but also against those in Westminster who would foolhardily risk hard-won peace in Northern Ireland for the sake of a couple of trophy trade agreements.

Sam Lowe is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.