Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Referendum on backstop exclusively for citizens of NI could unlock Brexit impasse

The poll would give democratic cover to any new deal with EU, but could Boris then get it through Parliament, asks Alban Maginness

Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson shaking hands after their Liverpool summit
Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson shaking hands after their Liverpool summit
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

Step into my parlour said the spider to the fly, 'tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy. This cautionary nursery rhyme should remind the DUP that their dalliance with Boris in the parlour at Number 10 and their web of intrigue with the Tories may soon end in tears.

The columnist Newton Emerson has for a long time been wryly predicting the DUP being thrown under a bus by the Tories after their services are no longer required.

It may well be that time is near at hand and that they will be thrown under an infamous Boris bus, given the recent intensified negotiations with the European Union.

Whatever happened at the Liverpool summit between Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson was a game changer and has created a new dynamic in the negotiations.

As the official statement after the meeting stated, both leaders "agreed they could see a pathway to a possible deal".

What that pathway is will be a matter of some speculation, but it is hard to see it being anything other than a refit of the original backstop agreed by Teresa May in December 2017.

What was clear last week was that the DUP were prepared, in the interests of getting a deal done, to abandon their blood-red line about a regulatory divergence between here and Britain, otherwise known in DUP-speak as a border down the Irish Sea.

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The conventional wisdom before the Liverpool meeting was that the DUP were simply supporting a pretend deal devised by the Johnson government that was engineered to fail, so that they could blame Europe and be in a better position to move to a no-deal Brexit.

Whether or not that was true, this is certainly not the case now and it would seem from all the intelligence gleaned from leaks and other sources that the centre of discussions lies on making the controversial backstop an Northern Ireland-specific backstop.

In other words, that we will remain under the regulatory framework of the single market but also will remain within the customs union in some shape or form, but suitably camouflaged, as a sop to the Tory right and the DUP.

But any decisive role for the Assembly in all this is unacceptable to Brussels and Dublin, as it would give the DUP a veto over the backstop and would also time-limit the backstop to four-year reviews, which in practice negates the nature of the backstop as a permanent guarantee.

In any event such reviews would prove to be destabilising for business and investors in this region. Business loves a stable working environment so that it can plan for years ahead, but that would be absent with periodic four-year reviews of whether or not we remain in the single market and the customs union.

In order to counter the point about the backstop being undemocratic, there is also discussion around the possibility of holding a Northern Ireland-only referendum, to give people here the opportunity of deciding the issue themselves.

The backstop has been deemed by the DUP and the Tories as undemocratic, but if approved by a local referendum here, then the backstop would be deemed as having been democratically sanitised.

The equivocation on this idea by Julian Smith, the Secretary of State, on the BBC's The View programme, is proof enough that this is being actively considered.

In August Tom Kelly, the former spin doctor for Tony Blair during the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, suggested such a way out of the whole debacle over the backstop.

Kelly's imaginative proposal makes a lot of sense, as a majority in favour would permit Boris Johnson to legitimately proceed on this basis alone.

It could also scupper the opposition of the DUP, as they would have to accept the majority decision of the people here as binding on them. A local poll provides both London and Brussels with a democratic way out of the current deadlock.

Assuming that the Varadkar-Johnson pathway turns into an acceptable deal for both London and Brussels, then the big question will be whether there will be a majority for such a deal within the British Parliament.

What will Labour do? What will Remain MPs of all parties do when confronted with a deal that is acceptable to Europe but which nonetheless means Brexit and an end to any lingering hope that they had of a second UK referendum and remaining in the EU? And what will the hardline Brexiteers do when they realise that the deal is a remake of Theresa May's deal with Europe in 2017?

Surprisingly, Boris may yet get a deal, but until this chaotic Parliament approves it, we are still stuck in one awful mess.

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