Ed Curran: How time-limited backstop could unlock Brexit impasse
Failure to reach a compromise would be disastrous for both Northern Ireland and the Republic, argues Ed Curran
Boris Johnson's meeting in Dublin on Monday with Leo Varadkar is not before time. It is increasingly obvious that without a compromise on the backstop between the British and Irish, rubber-stamped in Brussels, this island is staring at a disaster for its economy, north and south.
Once the new government in London announced it was hell-bent on leaving the European Union on October 31, minds everywhere were focused on the consequences. A no-deal Brexit, for all the assurances that Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar may offer, remains a nightmare scenario. Nowhere in Europe will be harder hit than the island of Ireland with its unique political divisions and dependency on marketing so much of its goods and services with Great Britain.
The backstop must go, says Johnson. The backstop must stay, says Varadkar. If that is the sum total of Anglo-Irish relations, or rather lack of relations, then not only is the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement in jeopardy, but so too is the day-to-day livelihood of many people, nationalist and unionist alike, north and south.
So long as a no-deal Brexit was not an option under Theresa May's proposed withdrawal deal with Brussels, Leo Varadkar was not under any pressure to spell out plans to maintain an open border with Northern Ireland. All attention has been on the UK, its seismic political upheaval resulting in May's downfall, a new Prime Minister and now the seemingly intractable divisions at Westminster.
German chancellor Angela Merkel gave Boris Johnson a month to come up with an acceptable alternative plan to replace the Irish backstop. The clock is ticking. The weeks pass by but still nothing has emerged from Downing Street.
Meanwhile, across the Irish Sea, increasing concern can be detected. The clock is ticking in Dublin too. Fears of a no deal situation in 50 days' time have awoken public opinion and political parties from complacency.
What impact would no-deal have on Ireland's €11bn goods and services to Great Britain, or the latter's €14bn reciprocal trade with the south? What delays and difficulties will befall the tens of thousands of trucks carrying Irish exports to the EU through the channel ports of England?
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What of the estimated 20,000 big and mainly small cross-border trading operations with Northern Ireland? What crippling tariffs might be just around the corner for the agri-food industry, selling so much of its beef, butter, bacon and other products to the supermarket shelves of Britain?
The questions keep coming but the answers are far from obvious, which is why the meeting in Dublin between Johnson and Varadkar was so essential and needs to be built upon urgently for all our sakes, in the Republic and Northern Ireland.
Protecting the Good Friday Agreement is the mantra voiced everywhere from Brussels to Washington. But an impasse between London and Dublin on the Irish backstop is not in the spirit of that agreement, the third strand of which is all about improving Anglo-Irish relations.
A compromise on the backstop could open the door to the UK reaching a withdrawal settlement with Brussels and put an end to the frightening prospect of a no-deal on October 31.
What might that compromise be, assuming there is a will and a way between Dublin and London to find it? The most likely meeting of minds is for Leo Varadkar to step back from his demand that the backstop is open-ended and for Boris Johnson to accept that Northern Ireland will continue to adhere to European rules and regulations, for a time-limited backstop period.
Putting a time-limit on the backstop will stretch the tolerance of both sides. The Irish government insists that a time-limited backstop is not a sufficient cast-iron guarantee. The UK government, egged on by the Democratic Unionists, refuses to accept any situation whereby Northern Ireland would be treated differently from Great Britain with a so-called border down the Irish Sea.
But there are chinks evident in Dublin, Belfast and London. Leo Varadkar is coming under increasing pressure to spell out how he intends to police Europe's only land frontier with the UK, if and when the latter departs, deal or no deal. The questions keep coming from opposition parties, from industry and farming interests, as to how this can be achieved. The answers have a vagueness that can hardly inspire confidence.
Just as Boris Johnson and his Brexiteers propose unconvincing technology checks and surveillance, so now Leo Varadkar appears to be falling back on similar arguments to avoid the embarrassment of checkpoints anywhere near the border. Having dismissed British proposals for an open border as unworkable, the Irish government seems to be struggling to provide a convincing scheme of its own, as it is expected to do by the other European Union member states.
At heart everyone knows the only way to preserve an open border is to have no tariffs and no obstacles to the movement of goods, services and people, as is currently the case.
That begs another question of the unionists in Northern Ireland. In the short-term, if the Irish backstop was time-limited, could EC rules and regulations remain in place here to ensure an open border with the south?
The referendum result in 2016 and subsequent opinion polls show a majority in Northern Ireland in favour of remaining in the EU and presumably also in preserving an open border with some form of backstop. The DUP and Ulster Unionists are out of step on this issue with mainstream opinion, especially in the farming and business community. Buying into a compromise on the backstop, such as accepting a time-limit, might actually widen the DUP's appeal as the party faces the prospect of a general election.
A time-limited backstop, of say two to three years, to enable a new tariff-free trade deal to be negotiated between the UK and Brussels, would require compromise by the unionists and by the Irish government. As October 31 looms, it is surely worth consideration.
Ed Curran is a former Editor of the Belfast Telegraph