Brexit and identity politics: the only way out is to drop the backstop

DUP leader Arlene Foster attends a ‘better deal’ event to protest against the backstop. PA/Steve Parsons

The Brexit negotiations have been characterised by both transactional and identity politics. However, it’s quite clear that in the later stages of these negotiations, identity politics has become the more dominant force, particularly when it comes to the Irish border. It’s time to consider whether abandoning Theresa May’s backstop proposal might actually be better for everyone.

Transactional politics is about bargaining and compromise. Both sides give ground in order to get an agreement. This type of politics can often lead to a win-win settlement. The negotiations over the divorce settlement of £39 billion once Britain leaves the EU are a prime example of this type of politics.

Identity politics involves disagreements over national, cultural, religious and ethnic differences. It can easily produce zero-sum games with one side winning and the other losing. The question of what to do about the Irish border after Brexit is a clear example of identity politics. May’s backstop proposal ostensibly gives the Irish Republic a guarantee that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic will remain open, even if a trade agreement is not reached between the UK and the EU. But, in practice, identity issues are in play.

The problem arises because there are three separate conflicting identities at work here. The unionists, specifically the Democratic Unionist Party, oppose a Brexit deal that would leave Northern Ireland with a different regulatory arrangement than the rest of the UK. They fear that economic detachment from Britain will lead to political detachment, which is a slippery slope towards a united Ireland. Needless to say, the current parliamentary arithmetic has greatly strengthened their hand in the negotiations.

Then there are the Brexiters, particularly MPs in the Conservative Party’s European Research Group, who see the backstop as turning Britain into a “vassal state” (in the words of their leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg). This is because the backstop requires the UK to continue to comply with EU rules even after leaving.

There is a third actor, whose motives have not been much discussed in the UK in the backstop debate – the Irish government. Leo Varadkar, the Irish premier, has persuaded the EU negotiators that the backstop is essential for the future of the Irish economy and also the 1998 peace agreement. After meeting Varadkar, European Council president Donald Tusk strongly reaffirmed the EU’s position that the backstop was non-negotiable. He has even talked about there being “a special place in hell” for people who promoted Brexit without having a plan.

In this febrile atmosphere the interesting question is: does the Irish government’s argument about the backstop stand up to scrutiny? The economic argument is based on the important trading relationship between the Irish Republic and Britain. Irish exports to Britain were valued at £21.8 billion and imports from Britain at £34 billion in 2017. These are sizeable sums by any standards. However, it turns out that only 1% of Irish exports went to Northern Ireland in the previous year, compared with 11% to Great Britain. While the trade relationship between the Irish Republic and The rest of the UK is very important, trade with the North seems much less so. If a hard border were established between the two parts of Ireland it would actually be a relatively straightforward matter for the Republic to divert border trade with Great Britain to other entry points.

The other argument supporting the backstop is that it is essential for maintaining the peace process – a point Tusk referred to in his speech. The argument is that the IRA is going to resume the terror campaign abandoned 25 years ago because some customs checks might be reintroduced on the border. The reader can judge for themselves the plausibility of this argument.

There is in fact a greater threat to peace in Northern Ireland than random checks on a few vehicles crossing the border. This is highlighted by an academic survey conducted in October last year. This found that 87% of Brexit voters in Northern Ireland saw the collapse of the peace process as an acceptable price to pay for leaving the European Union. Brexit captured 44% of the vote in the EU referendum. Does this mean that 38% of the voters in Northern Ireland prefer Brexit to peace? To be fair, this may well be due to the fact that they think a return to violence is very unlikely to occur.

Varadkar and Tusk. EPA/Olivier Hoslet

That said, suppose a handful of these people interpret the backstop as an attempt by Dublin to subvert the Brexit referendum, or even worse to detach Northern Ireland from the UK as a preliminary to calling a referendum on Irish unification. This is not so far-fetched. Sinn Fein’s declared policy is already to seek such a referendum as soon as possible.

It is worth remembering that Loyalist violence during the Troubles was a problem as well as IRA violence, so this might lead to renewed attacks on the Irish Republic, which did a lot of damage during the years of conflict. This could have dire consequences for the Irish economy, which is heavily reliant on multinational companies. Ironically, in that event, the Irish government would then rapidly seek to police the open border for security reasons.

The truth is that, at this late stage, it would be much better for everyone if the backstop was dropped since that would probably allow a deal to pass the House of Commons. It would mean substituting a light touch controlled border for a completely open border, much as exists between Norway, which is outside the EU, and Sweden, which is a member state. The fact that such a sensible solution is ruled out categorically by the Irish government and the EU shows how destructive identity politics can be. The lesson for everyone is that we need to rein in identity politics and return to a transactional approach to Brexit if we are to get through the current mess.