So after two years of contentious negotiations abroad and political chaos at home, London has returned to the original “Northern Ireland only” version of the backstop protocol in the proposed Withdrawal Agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Except that in this second draft of the treaty the UK has moved from accepting a potential “backstop” for the Six Counties to recognising an immediate “all stop”, placing the contested region in a bespoke regulatory arrangement that will make it a de facto adjunct of the EU’s Customs Union while remaining a de jure part of the British one. Thus establishing a less explicit but more complex form of the long-predicted Irish Sea border between the two territories. Despite claims to the contrary by the Conservative Party government and its apologists in Britain*, a careful reading of the revised deal makes it clear that Boris Johnson’s new 2019 text is simply Theresa May’s old 2017 text with two amended paragraphs in the important clause covering the “Northern Ireland Protocol” and six minor changes to the separate – and somewhat aspirational – Political Declaration. Which makes his support for the proposal and that of many previous diehard Brexiteers in Westminster and beyond all the more remarkable.
Of course the Democratic Unionist Party recognises a retreat from a position of “no surrender” when it sees one and despite recently fudging its own “blood red line” on the technicalities of Brexit the suggested settlement moves way beyond anything that the DUP could accept. Especially as Arlene Foster’s minority party knows that there is little hope of reversing what is likely to become a permanent arrangement no matter how hard they might work the included mechanisms designed to allow local approval or disapproval. If accepted by legislators in London, and given the dysfunctional nature of Westminster it is a major if, the new deal won’t just end years of Brexit impasse and worry in the Six Counties. It will likely serve as an economic and political stepping stone to a constitutional elsewhere.
* The rhetorical gymnastics of the Johnson loyalists in the UK trying to present the new draft agreement as a non-backstop deal reminds one of Tom King, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland during the 1980s, and his much satirised denial of the existence of no-go zones for the British Forces in the Six Counties:
“There are no no-go areas in Northern Ireland. …but I draw the distinction… between routes where there are no no-go areas and routes that are more sensible, or less sensible, to use…”