All you wanted to know about Irish backstop

Vivek Ananth | Updated on October 29, 2019

The Brexit has been nothing short of a soap opera so far, with the third British Prime Minister since the referendum, now steering the UK through a rather chaotic exit from the 27-member EU. Many versions of a formal withdrawal agreements were put to vote, but were scuttled on the question of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It has also led to remarkably comical scenes in the House of Commons where Speaker John Bercow had to scold MPs, to rein them in during debates.

What is it?

Currently, there are no border checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland as both the UK (comprising England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and Ireland are part of the EU. But after Brexit, Ireland would be part of the EU and Northern Ireland will be out of it. So customs checks would be needed for movement of goods and people between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

After the 2016 referendum, the Irish backstop was negotiated by former prime minister, Theresa May, with the European Union. The Irish backstop is a proposed border arrangement that would eliminate the need for border checks between the Northern Ireland and Ireland for a few years, until the final trade agreements were signed between the UK and the EU. In other words, it was to be status quo, for some time.

This has been a thorny issue among those who voted to leave the EU and also the Democratic Unionist Party or DUP of Northern Ireland, that is propping up the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s minority government.

The Leavers don’t want an Irish backstop because it keeps the UK inside the customs union (free movement of goods and services with the EU) without having a say on how the bloc functions. So, former PM Theresa May, negotiated a Northern Ireland only backstop. But the DUP rejected this deal because it would create a customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of UK. Then came a UK-wide backstop which led to a revolt among Conservative MPs as they feared UK would be trapped in the EU’s embrace.

Johnson junked the Irish backstop and negotiated a deal to create a sea border in the Irish Sea, which his predecessor had said “no British prime minister” could accept. Well, Johnson did, but it was nixed in the House of Commons, with some help from Johnson’s ally the DUP.

Why is it important?

The Irish backstop was seen as a way to preserve the current open borders between Northern Ireland and Ireland after the UK left the EU. The open border was agreed in 1998, to maintain peace in Northern Ireland and have a quasi-united Ireland island even though Ireland is not part of the UK. There was violence in Northern Ireland for many decades to unite both Ireland and Northern Ireland. The agreement, also called the Good Friday Agreement, stemmed the violence and there has been peace ever since.

Why should I care?

With the EU extending the final date of Brexit to January 31, 2020, and a hard Brexit out of the question, the Irish border issue is the only problem yet to be resolved.

Settling the Irish border issue is key to concluding the Brexit saga and for everyone to move on to finalising UK’s relationship with the EU after it exits the bloc.

Indian companies operating in the UK will want this issue to be resolved so that they can then make plans for life after Brexit, re-negotiate deals with vendors and clients in the EU. Indian companies doing trade with the UK will also be interested in the backstop, to plan their trading channels.


The Irish backstop seems contentious enough to stop the Brexit on its tracks.

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Published on October 29, 2019

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