Fear of returning violence key argument for Brexit 'backstop'

December 14, 2018 13:23
British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during the European Union leaders summit in Brussels on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

On Aug. 13, 1974, two British soldiers were on duty at an observation post overlooking the border with the Republic of Ireland. A remote-controlled bomb went off and killed them both.

They were stationed at a British army base in Crossmaglen, a small town in Northern Ireland close to the border with the Republic. The area was controlled by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA); it killed 124 soldiers and 58 policemen in the area during the Troubles from 1969 to 1998.

Outsiders did not dare go to Crossmaglen; they feared being caught in the crossfire between the two sides, or by a bomb.

That is the dramatic human story behind the “backstop” that has become the principal obstacle for Prime Minister Theresa May to get her Brexit Withdrawal Treaty through the British Parliament.

From the start of the negotiations between Britain and the European Union, the Irish government insisted that there could be no return to the "hard" border that existed during the Troubles. Brussels accepted this and made it a precondition of any agreement.

The border runs for 499 kilometers and has 270 public roads. Since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, people and goods have been able to cross the border freely, without any controls, since both Britain and Ireland belong to the European Union.

After Britain leaves next March, it needs to be able to control its external borders; this one with Ireland is its only land border with the EU.

During the negotiations, Dublin and Brussels proposed that the UK introduce customs controls on the Irish Sea; this would allow the land border to remain open. But May rejected this. Since then, the two sides have been unable to agree on a way to control the border and monitor the movement of goods and people.

So they reached a compromise of the "backstop" under which Britain remains in the customs union until the two sides find a way to solve this border issue. The treaty states that Britain cannot leave the union on its own and needs the consent of Brussels. Many members of May’s Conservative Party reject this.

An Irish diplomat said that, when EU foreign ministers came to Ireland, they were taken to the border areas to meet the people who live and work there. “We wanted them to hear from those directly affected, not only from us.” The border residents strongly oppose the reintroduction of a hard border; they said it would severely damage the local economy and risk the return of violence. 

Dublin fears that, if customs or military posts were built along the border, they would be attacked by extreme Republicans. This would in turn bring retaliation by militants from the other side. And the terrible cycle of violence might begin again. 

During the Troubles, more than 3,500 people were killed and 47,500 injured. Thousands of factories, companies and homes were destroyed; few tourists, foreign students or investors went to the North. 

The Troubles devastated the economy of Northern Ireland. Even 20 years later, it receives, for a population of 1.8 million, an annual subsidy of 10 billion euros (US$11.36 billion) from the UK government. Income per head is 22,000 euros. In the Irish Republic, which was not touched by the Troubles, the income per head is 38,000 euros.

Now the island runs as a single economy. Fresh milk from cows in the South is taken to processing plants in the North which export milk powder around the world. Parts and components move seamlessly from one side to the other, with no delay.

So a hard border would bring economic, as well as military, risks. Goods and those carrying them would be delayed for checks and verification, to meet EU and UK rules and standards. 

But the most compelling argument remains the human one. The 20 years since the end of the Troubles are not enough to heal the scars and enmities of those who lost friends and family. Decades more are needed so that people grow up without the fear and hatred of their parents.

The EU leaders in Brussels were convinced by this argument.

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, told Theresa May on Tuesday: “Ireland will never be left alone. I realize that the Irish backstop is prompting objections in London, but it is necessary.” He ruled out a change to the legally binding withdrawal agreement.

“The deal we achieved is the best deal possible, it is the only deal possible. There is no room whatsoever for renegotiation,” he said.

So how can Theresa May square the circle?

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.