Boris Johnson has told the European Union there is no need for “drama” as he doubled down on hints he could override elements of his post-Brexit deal on Northern Ireland.
The prime minister said on Wednesday that the Good Friday Agreement is more important than the Northern Ireland Protocol, as he dismissed suggestions of any possible escalatory response from the EU as “crazy”.
He said the protocol fails to command support from unionists in the region, adding “we need to sort it out”, despite warnings from Joe Biden’s White House and European leaders not to single-handedly meddle with the agreement he brokered.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
Unsatisfied with Theresa May’s deal with the European Union, Tory rebels – likely spearheaded by Boris Johnson – drove her out of power and set about renegotiating the deal in October 2019.
Under the new administration, the former backstop was replaced with a mechanism that effectively created a de facto customs border down the Irish Sea with Great Britain.
The Northern Ireland Assembly can choose to leave the protocol, resulting it being dubbed as “Chequers for Northern Ireland” due to its similarity with the plan proposed by May.
Johnson now wants to ease up trade between the UK and Northern Ireland, but as Rory Stewart points out, there has to be a border somewhere.
Here’s an explainer of where we find ourselves with Boris Johnson’s agreement:
What is the Irish Backstop agreement?
The Irish Backstop is an agreement, negotiated by May, that also aimed to prevent a customs border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit, albeit in a different way.
Under her deal, Northern Ireland would be kept in some aspects of the single market until an alternative arrangement was agreed between the EU and the UK.
It also meant that the UK would have a customs territory with the EU until a solution was found, which removed the ability to strike new trade deals, at least until a different arrangement was agreed upon.
Who supported the agreement?
The Irish government and Northern Irish nationalists (favouring a united Ireland) supported the protocol, whereas Unionists (favouring the existing United Kingdom) opposed it.
By early 2019, the Westminster Parliament had voted three times against ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement and thus also rejected the backstop.
It is perhaps surprising that the DUP rejected the deal after May effectively ‘bought’ their support in the 2017 election to form a government.
The party was recently ousted from power by Sinn Fein in a historic election.
Would the Irish Backstop have curtailed the current dilemma faced by Boris Johnson?
The DUP has since strongly rejected suggestions that it should have agreed to Theresa May’s backstop, which would have arguably worked out as a better option than the current protocol.
Lord Dodds told the Belfast Telegraph: “Some people have mistakenly suggested that if Theresa May’s backstop had been accepted, we could have avoided the problems we face today. Such an idea is wrong.
“The May backstop contained a regulatory border in the Irish Sea in exactly the same way as the protocol. Mrs May said that the rest of the UK would just tag along and keep its laws in step with the EU.
But Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry MP disagrees.
He said: “It is baffling why all unionist parties rejected both a UK-wide soft Brexit or the much more benign backstop, relative to the protocol, and instead facilitated a hard Brexit with all of the self-evident consequences.
“The single market and customs union are wrongly framed as some form of burden to Northern Ireland when, in practice, they are a huge opportunity.
“The backstop was only intended as an insurance and would disappear with the conclusion of a wider future relationship issue.
“It provided for a UK-wide approach on customs which avoided many of the current problems being experienced with the protocol.”
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