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3 October 2019

Has Boris Johnson actually got a credible alternative to the backstop?

While it is far from an achievable, real-world proposal; you can still just about see how Downing Street could attempt to spin it as such – yet there are major downsides. 

By Stephen Bush

Where to begin with Boris Johnson’s new proposal for an alternative to the backstop? Under his plans, Northern Ireland would remain in the same regulatory environment as Ireland for not only food and agriculture, but for goods as well. That’s the big upside as far as reaching a deal – Johnson has made a small move towards an Ireland-only backstop and got the DUP to breach what Arlene Foster once described as her “blood red” line: that the party would never back an accord that puts further regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland the rest of the UK.

While it is far from an achievable, real-world proposal; you can still just about see the space for an accord where Downing Street tries to finesse what it wants to sell as a triumphant win for checks away from the border, which is in practice a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. That’s certainly the hope of some in the cabinet – but many on the EU side and in parliament think that Johnson’s real game is blaming the EU to achieve the no-deal Brexit he really wants.

Now here are the downsides. Firstly, the proposal includes the creation of border infrastructure by any other name, which breaks the terms of the December 2017 agreement reached between the European Union and the United Kingdom, a commitment that has already been passed into law here in the UK.

Then there is the veto it hands to Stormont. That Johnson’s proposals require not only a majority of Assembly members but a cross-community majority to vote in favour of continuing the all-Ireland zone of regulatory alignment every four years means that every Assembly election will in practice become a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.

As it stands, this is far from a negotiable Brexit, so any talk about whether it can command a majority in the House of Commons is a second-order issue.

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The Conservative government’s new talking point is that the problem with the backstop is that it doesn’t command sufficient cross-community support. It’s true to say that no unionist member of the Stormont Assembly backs it, but the independent Unionist MP, Sylvia Hermon, does.

However, Johnson’s new proposal doesn’t have the support of any cross-community members of the Assembly, any nationalist members of the Assembly or 11 of the 39 unionist members of the Assembly. It doesn’t have the support of most of Northern Ireland’s business organisations. If cross-community consent is the question then only a tissue-soft Brexit for the whole of the United Kingdom is the answer.

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