Following Theresa May’s historic and humiliating defeat in the House of Commons last week she has been under intense pressure to return with an alternative Brexit deal, a Plan B. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to securing a majority amongst her own party and retaining the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) upon whose ten votes she is reliant for power, is the Irish back stop agreement. The backstop is a position of last resort designed to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland in the event that the UK leaves the EU without securing an all-encompassing deal.

Ignoring the result of two Irish referenda

Until late Sunday night there were three ways to avoid the return of a hard border in Ireland: some sort of special arrangement for Northern Ireland; a settlement that would keep all of the United Kingdom in something like a customs union with a dose of regulatory alignment; or a united Ireland. But late on Sunday night a fourth appeared: the rewriting of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA, 1998). Theresa May and some of her privately educated advisors thought that it would be a good idea to implement the result of a British referendum by ignoring the result of two Irish referenda which gave democratic legitimacy to the GFA twenty years ago and brought three decades of violent conflict to an end. Meanwhile there are plenty of voices in Ireland reminding the British establishment that the conflict in Ireland cost thousands of lives and ripped its way through two generations of communities and families; and as recent events have highlighted, the peace process that brought the conflict to an end is still ongoing.

Degree of immeasurable incompetence

Since the Blairite era it has become a tried and tested tactic to float an idea in the mainstream press to test the waters, before making robust denials about its existence once it has been shot down. But the notion that Britain would even consider trying to renegotiate a hard-won international peace treaty lodged at the United Nations is revealing of a number of things. One is the degree of immeasurable incompetence that lies within the Cabinet and those advising it. Another is the exceptionalism and supremacy of an erstwhile empire that looks upon the island of Ireland and its people as entirely expendable. A third is the lengths to which the government will go to appease the DUP and European Research Group (ERG) by attempting to get rid of the backstop designed to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

Not just controversial but impossible

The plan to renegotiate the GFA was of course denied by the government after it was pointed out by, well, everyone, that it’s not just controversial but impossible as it would require the consent of all the parties in the North as well as the Irish Government. However, the very fact of its emergence underlines the extent of the crisis that Theresa May has created for herself. What these amendments to an internationally binding peace agreement may have looked like will never be known. It is doubtful that they exist at all – a kind of Schrodinger’s backstop.

May’s desperate turn to reconsider the GFA followed her cynical call to meet with other parties from across the political spectrum and negotiate a cross-party deal. Corbyn refused to meet her unless she removed the option of a no-deal scenario off the table and was strongly criticised by other parties. Then with the kind of duplicity typical of the Brexit era, those same critics, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats and some of his own backbenchers went on to meet Theresa May only then to claim it was a waste of time, much as Corbyn had predicted.

Another underwhelming appearance

And so she was back for yet another underwhelming appearance at the despatch box where she suggested once again that there would be one last push on getting rid of the backstop, or adapting it in ways that will please the obdurate DUP and calm the lunatic ramblings of the ERG. At this stage would anyone be surprised if she suggested bringing Ireland back into the United Kingdom? Meanwhile Labour’s Keir Starmer has made it clear ‘That any deal probably does require a backstop and we’ve got to recognise that’.

It appears that the only hope of winning Labour MPs’ support for a deal through the inclusion of a customs union is off the table and that May is caught between the splits in her own party, her reliance on the DUP and her own self-interest. Of all the ways out of the Irish backstop impasse, none are open to her.

May’s disastrous decision

If it weren’t for May’s disastrous decision to hold an election in 2017 there would be a border in the Irish Sea and some form of Brexit would likely be through. But parliamentary numbers mean the DUP hold the cards for the moment and they want a hard Brexit, a harder border and May’s government cannot hold onto office if it agrees anything else. Last night John McDonnell, the Labour Shadow Chancellor said it was “highly likely” that the party would support an amendment put forward by Labour MP Yvette Cooper aimed at suspending the Article for leaving the EU if a deal has not been agreed by the end of February. However if the attempts to delay the process fail, it makes a ‘no deal’ Brexit increasingly likely. Unsurprisingly Jean-Claude Junker’s chief spokesperson told reporters yesterday that it was “pretty obvious” that ‘border infrastructure’ will inevitably appear at the border. It won’t be the only thing. We’ll see you there.

by Stiofán Ó Nualláin & Seán Byers

Originally published on 23 January 2019 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.

DUP: The largest party in Northern Ireland, it is a right-wing, socially conservative, anti-abortion, anti same-sex marriage party that sees itself as defending Britishness and Ulster Protestant culture against Irish nationalism. The party is strongly Eurosceptic and supported the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

ERG: A pressure/support group for Eurosceptic members of the British Conservative Party defined by their strong opposition to the UK’s membership of the European Union, many were involved in the Leave Campaign and are considered ‘hard Brexiteers’.