Several weeks ago the former Conservative Party politician Michael Portillo observed on a BBC current affairs show that there were almost no circumstances under which the United Kingdom could leave the European Union that not include some version of the Backstop Protocol negotiated in 2017 by Brussels and Dublin with London, and later rejected by a majority of UK ministers and parliamentarians, bar a so-called no-deal Brexit. Indeed, the ex-Secretary of State for Defence predicted that whoever assumed the leadership of his old party, and the premiership of Britain, would likely seek to have the peace-protecting clause in the Withdrawal Agreement returned to its previous “Northern Ireland”-only status, allowing the UK to exit the EU while keeping its legacy colony across the Irish Sea in regulatory alignment with Europe’s customs union and single market. Even if a cosmetically different name was substituted for the word “backstop” in any arrangement to ease British sensitivities about the deal.
Portillo’s remarks did not make much of an impact outside of some hardline unionist circles in London and Belfast, with various representatives of the Democratic Unionist and Ulster Unionist parties and their journalistic equivalents rejecting his line of reasoning. However that has not stopped increasing speculation on the subject with even some members of the European Research Group (ERG), a staunchly anti-EU faction of the Tories, lending a sympathetic ear to the suggested solution out of the UK’s seemingly interminable Brexit impasse. According to a handful of media reports in London a proposal that has been floating around in several forms for some time, that voters in the north-east of Ireland should be given the opportunity to support or oppose a Six Counties-only backstop deal through a local referendum, is gaining ground in Westminster. And while this may be still on the fringes of British politics it is understood that Boris Johnson, the main contender for the leadership of the Conservative Party and the likely next Prime Minster of Britain, is apparently discussing this idea with his advisers.
Which raises the question, given that the main unionist parties in north-east Ulster are pro-Brexit while their northern nationalist and nonaligned rivals are anti-Brexit, how likely is it that a “backstop referendum” would be influenced by older constitutional concerns, becoming a sort of proto-“border poll” or plebiscite on a reunited Ireland in the process?