The border, the backstop and Brexit: Boris Johnson’s Northern Ireland obstacles

Angus Walker

Former ITV News Correspondent

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Angus Walker

Boris Johnson meets leaders of political parties in Northern Ireland today.

The Prime Minister says he’ll be focusing on efforts to restore the power sharing assembly.

“The people of Northern Ireland have now been without an Executive and Assembly for two years and six months – put simply this is much, much too long,” Johnson says.

“Northern Ireland’s citizens need and deserve the Executive to get up and running again as soon as possible, so that locally-accountable politicians can take decisions on the issues that really matter to local people.”

What also matters, arguably just as much, is Brexit.

Northern Ireland is in the eye of the Brexit storm.

The border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland has been effectively invisible under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement which brought peace after 30 years of ‘the Troubles’.That agreement backed by all parties in Northern Ireland, the UK and Irish governments along with the European Union, has been the background to a row over the border and resulted in the issue becoming the major obstacle in Brexit negotiations.

All sides in the Brexit talks agree that there must not be return to a ‘hard’ border with customs posts and police patrols.

A hard border is something no one wants but could be the price of Brexit. Credit: PA

The Withdrawal Agreement struck with the EU by Theresa May contains the controversial ‘backstop’.

It’s an insurance policy which would keep the UK within the EU customs union if, and only if, a free trade deal could not be agreed at a later date.

That was drawn up to preserve the open border as it is while trade talks went on.

Yesterday, Boris Johnson and his counterpart in Dublin the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke on the telephone, Johnson insisting that the backstop must be abolished before any Brexit deal can be done.

The Taoiseach reiterated that the backstop is necessary and the existing Withdrawal Agreement is not up for renegotiation.

The two positions are fixed and incompatible.

If there’s a ‘hard Brexit’ with no agreed UK/EU deal then the question remains: how would the border between the EU and a third country be enforced while also respecting the terms of the Good Friday Agreement?

Ireland and the UK insist neither would set up physical checks but that border would be the frontier of the EU’s valuable single market.

Irish sources admit there have been “difficult conversations” with the EU about protecting the EU’s integrity in the event of no deal.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says the backstop is necessary. Credit: PA

From Downing Street’s point of view putting pressure on Ireland could be a good tactic.

Ireland stands to suffer significant economic damage in the event of no deal.

If that looms large then perhaps the hope is that Dublin will buckle and agree to scrap the dreaded backstop.

There are differing positions within Northern Ireland’s politics.

Johnson’s first meeting was a private dinner with Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

The DUP support the Conservatives in Westminster and oppose the backstop.

The PM is also meeting Sinn Fein, the main Republican Party, which backs the backstop.

Sinn Fein can see a scenario where a no-deal Brexit causes economic damage and leads to a point where, through the terms of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, a majority of people in Northern Ireland would vote for reunification of the island of Ireland.

The majority in Northern Ireland voted Remain in 2016.

Communities either side of the border fear the impact of Brexit. Credit: PA

Sinn Fein believes the DUP leadership are against the deal and opposed to the backstop because they want to “reinforce partition” and “harden the border” between the Ireland and the UK.

“Sinn Fein will not become observers to hard won rights being stripped away,” the Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson has warned.

The implications of Brexit are having a long and lasting impact in Northern Ireland.

Given that all sides and parties in this debate are opposed to a return to a hard border and all support the Good Friday Agreement it is perhaps remarkable that so much disagreement exists.

It does and all political positions remain entrenched.

The overlap between the attempts to get power sharing in Stormont back again and the Brexit debate cannot be underestimated because the border, the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit are, to an extent, a blended disagreement.