31 January 2019

The backstop is built on a colossal delusion

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The backstop is eating itself. The insurance provision in the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan designed to prevent regulatory checks at the EU’s land border with the UK has now become the single greatest impediment to a negotiated exit. ‘No return to the hard borders of the past’ is the specious anthem that gathered both Remainers, Leavers and Eurocrats alike in a rare moment of pious harmony that heralded the birth of this creature. It is time to drive a stake through its heart.

Northern Ireland’s 310 mile frontier has existed since 1921. Only intended to be provisional at the start, it is now a solid constitutional fact endorsed by the British and Irish Governments in the Belfast Agreement of 1998. In geopolitics, at least, it is as real as God.

Common travel area agreements between the UK and Ireland, in force in various forms since 1925 largely for immigration purposes, were augmented by the entry of both countries to what was then known as the EEC in 1973. Since that time, the introduction of a single market has meant that in practice trade and travel across the border has been virtually seamless and hugely beneficial for two interdependent economies and peoples.

The elephant you’ve just spotted in the room is, of course the Troubles. An elephant so big in the minds of all the political interlocutors of Brexit it has now become the room. The Troubles — our lethal 40 year spasm of inter-Christian hatred — has spawned the backstop. It is the Remainers’ shroud of choice. It is the Leavers’ Achilles heel. And it is built on a colossal delusion.

There is no hard border to return to. No hard border ever existed. I know, I was there. In the turbulent 90-odd years of its existence, we’ve never had a Trumpian wall, an Israeli fence or through vast swathes of its course anything bigger than a drainage ditch to block your way. You could and can cross this international frontier armed with nothing more than a good pair of Wellingtons.

We absolutely did have a militarised border. But let’s be clear, the SAS weren’t sent into South Armagh to intercept someone smuggling fags from Dundalk. The permanent British Army vehicle checkpoints that studded key access roads into the North weren’t designed to check border hopping Heifers for Brucellosis. The infrastructure that disfigured the landscape was purely put there in response to the massive security threat posed by the Provisional IRA who had before their erection been murdering people with impunity and often escaping across the frontier to sanctuary in the Irish Republic.

Let’s also not get distracted by the tactical sense of this response. The minority Unionist community near the border, ruthlessly thinned out by the IRAs sectarian onslaught were pleased to see the erection of these checkpoints in the late 70s and 80s. They were a tangible sign that they still lived in the UK and had not been completely forsaken by their Government. VCPs inevitably frustrated terrorists and became the target of many audacious and lethal attacks. Without question commerce was slowed and border communities subject to huge inconvenience and alienation because of a policy of cratering smaller roads. Again, this wasn’t to guarantee unchlorinated chicken, it was to prevent violent extremists from using rat runs to escape from their dirty work.

The security landscape in Northern Ireland is today transformed. The Good Friday Agreement, for all its flaws and constructive ambiguity, has enabled this. The Agreement specifically refers to the ‘demilitarisation’ of the border: “The British Government will make progress towards the objective of as early a return as possible to normal security arrangements in Northern Ireland, consistent with the level of threat.”

This is not a threat from BSE, incidentally the only time you could say a hard border ever truly existed with the Irish government effectively sealing its frontier against Mad Cow Disease. This is the threat of the return of large-scale paramilitary violence.

So if the ‘hard border’ of contemporary political imagination never existed, how could we return to one? A border region studded again with security installations, military checkpoints and patrolling British soldiers would surely only be brought about by a return to full-scale violence by capable and determined Republican terrorists operating with the same degree of tacit community support they enjoyed in the 1970s. Is this feasible?

Forty years ago, Northern Ireland was a manifestly unequal society, with the Catholic minority structurally and systematically discriminated against. Today we are approaching demographic parity in a Province largely free from political violence where community equality, rights and freedoms are guaranteed by law and people have the inalienable right to express their identity as Irish or British. Protestant paramilitaries are more concerned with controlling the drugs economy in a few working-class Bantustans. The sad clowns who we know as dissident Republican — or Billy no-mandate —  are reduced to bombing lamp posts in Derry in the name of a free Ireland. These extremists, by the way, have publicly stated that their homely sadism is completely unconnected to Brexit. Given how infiltrated they are by the security service it’s not entirely clear whether this is the heir to James Connolly speaking or his handler.

The conditions that might require the mythical hard border of the past seem therefore very unlikely. If there has to be border infrastructure and it has to be right on the border, there could well be criminal damage by a few people who have been radicalised by irresponsible nonsense. Sinn Fein, whose moral contortions on violent extremism would make a gymnast weep, need to feed their armchair activists some red meat, hence the recent ludicrous theatre of its nominal leadership sledgehammering a foam border wall that never even existed when their terrorist wing was at its murdering best.

It one of life’s tremendous ironies that a border city like Newry that voted overwhelmingly to remain and is a televisual touchstone for soft/no border sentiment is set to benefit most from a hard Brexit and the likely devaluation of sterling. It’s difficult to imagine a more disappointed El Dorado.

The backstop was designed to prevent a scenario that none of the main protagonists want or even believe will happen – no agreement on trade and regulation between the UK and EU after Brexit. It might yet be the biggest unicorn in the stable. It has been cynically manipulated by all sides abetted by ultra-Remainers who in their hubris and ignorance have only succeeded in talking into existence the very trouble in Northern Ireland they say they want to avoid.

It is a wholly unnecessary constitutional snare bizarrely created in Whitehall, now owned and operated by the EU. Its agreed replacement could allow an orderly exit from Europe, spike the guns of subversives and provide a context – possibly even a precondition – for the return of the moribund Northern Ireland Executive. Above all, it has, finally, united Parliament in a way out of the paralysis that is by far the greatest threat to the future integrity of the United Kingdom. It is for the EU to decide if it is still worth dying in an imaginary border ditch impaled on illusory spikes. It’s time to let the elephant out of the room.

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Ian Acheson is a prison safety expert. He led the independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons and probation ordered by then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove.