What Is The Northern Irish Backstop And How Does Brexit Affect The Border?

20 August 2019, 12:50 | Updated: 28 October 2019, 15:53

Boris Johnson has today called the Irish backstop "unviable" and has said it must be removed for a Brexit deal to be reached. This is everything you need to know about what the backstop is and why it's so controversial.

Prime Minster Boris Johnson has told European leaders that the UK could still leave the EU with a deal if Brussels agrees to scrap the Irish backstop.

Boris Johnson has hinted that there is still a chance the Brexit agreement could be approved by a majority of the UK parliament before the 31 October deadline if the backstop is removed.

In a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, Boris Johnson called the backstop "unviable" and "undemocratic", and suggested instead that alternative customs arrangements should be put in place at the Irish boarder for the two year post-Brexit transition period.

He called for "flexible and creative solutions" and "alternative arrangements" based on technology.

But the European Commission said the letter did not contain any "legally operational solution" to prevent a hard Irish border.

A spokeswoman said, "it does not set out what any alternative arrangements could be," and "recognises that there is no guarantee such arrangements would be in place by the end of the transitional period".

Mr Tusk said in opposing the arrangement without "realistic alternative", the UK government is supporting re-establishing a hard border, "even if they do not admit it."

Taking to Twitter, Donald Tusk stated, "the backstop is an insurance to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland unless and until an alternative is found."

On Monday night Brussels once again ruled out any renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop.

What is the problem with a hard border on Ireland?

Ireland joined the European Union in 1973 at the same time that Northern Ireland did as part of the United Kingdom.

Goods, services, and people are able to travel freely between these two countries as they both follow the same restrictions of movement.

As a result of Brexit, Northern Ireland will also be leaving the EU with the rest of the UK.

This means that for the first time, the UK will have a land border with the European Union in the Republic of Ireland, where different restrictions on movement apply to each side.

However to protect the Belfast Agreement (known more commonly as 'The Good Friday Agreement'), leaders across Europe have agreed that there will be "no hard border" on the border, but also that the "constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom" will be maintained.

The EU and UK both want to maintain the free flow of goods without border checks because of fears of a return to The Troubles, and Cabinet ministers have agreed the UK's position is that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Both the UK and EU have promised to 'protect North-South co-operation', and a backstop was put in place should a trade deal not be reached before Brexit.

What is the Good Friday Agreement?

The Belfast Agreement, commonly known as the 'Good Friday Agreement' was signed in 1998 to bring an end to the 30-year period of conflict, known as 'The Troubles'.

The conflict in Northern Ireland started when it became separated from the rest of Ireland in the early 1920s. Ireland split off from British rule, leaving Northern Ireland as part of the UK and creating a separate country of the Republic of Ireland.

But the separation of Ireland saw a series of protests on both sides become violent, and British troops were deployed to the region. But they came into conflict with Republican armed groups, the most prominent being called the IRA (Irish Republican Army). The IRA were responsible for deadly bombings in Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Belfast agreement set out how Northern Ireland should be governed, and aimed to set up a power-sharing arrangement between nationalist and unionist parties. This created the Northern Ireland Assembly that took devolved powers from Westminster in London.

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) signed the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday, on the 10th April 1998.

What is the Irish backstop?

The Irish border backstop is the position of last resort to protect the open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The backstop agreement is that the UK, or part of the UK, would remain part of the Customs Union.

However, parliament has already rejected the current deal, negotiated by former Prime Minister Theresa May with the EU, three times.

Brexiteers fear that the backstop would prevent the U.K. striking trade deals with other nations after Brexit by effectively keeping the UK in the single market. Meanwhile the EU say the backstop is essential for maintaining the free movement of goods, services and people and to the peace agreement in Ireland.

The Democratic Unionist Party has vowed to oppose any new checks on goods passing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.