Word of the week: Backstop.
Chambers: backstop a screen, wall, etc. acting as a barrier in various sports or games, e.g. shooting, baseball etc.: (the position of) a player, e.g. in baseball who stops the ball: something providing additional support, protection, etc.
The last time – no, the second last time – I visited Ireland it was to climb her highest mountain – Carrauntoohil (1038 metres), in the heart of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks. In the absence of a bridge that will one day I’m sure cross between the Mull of Kintyre, and Antrim, I drove to Cairnryan and took the ferry to Belfast, then drove south west to Kerry. Just south of Newry the A1 became the N1 and the speed limits were given in kilometres rather than miles per hour, but other than that, I wasn’t conscious that I had crossed a border.
Kerry is very beautiful. The summit of Carrauntoohil is dominated by a huge cross; standing under it and looking south west, the view to the Irish coast is stunning. I stayed in Killarney, and the following morning drove east to pick up the ferry from Rosslare to Fishguard. I could as easily have been taking the ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool.
I wonder what that trip is going to be like after March 29th next year.
With regard to the land border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, the EU and the UK signed up to the backstop agreement in December 2017. The agreement was that, regardless of the detail of the Brexit deal, the border would remain frictionless, and the Good Friday agreement would be protected. You can see right away (at least, people living on the border saw right away) that this poses a difficulty. The main motive force for Brexit was that we “take back control of our borders.” This presumably includes our only land border with the European Union. The EU’s proposed backstop was that Northern Ireland stay in the Customs Union, large parts of the single market, and the EU VAT system. This effectively transplants the border into the Irish Sea. Such an arrangement however crosses the one red line of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, that there will be no border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Is it not profoundly ironic that Mrs May called a general election in 2017 in order to increase her majority and bolster her negotiating position in Europe, only to lose her overall majority in Parliament and to become reliant on the support of the ten returned DUP Westminster MPs? If Mrs May loses the support of the DUP, her already precarious grip on power may be critically damaged. Mrs May’s response has been to propose that the whole of the UK remain aligned with the Customs Union for a limited time after 2020. She is effectively kicking backstop into the long grass (excuse the mixed metaphor – I’ll come back to that) and postponing making a decision. This does not satisfy the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: the backstop cannot have a time limit. It occurs to me that here is a conundrum that, like squaring the circle or finding the roots of an irrational number, is insoluble. Unless the UK stay in the EU, or Northern Ireland unite with the Republic, any other solution will be the softest of soft Brexits, a fudge.
One proposed solution involves “maximum facilitation” (Max-fac). This involves the use of digital technology in order to render the border so virtual as to be invisible. This idea seems to me to be quite sinister. You replace the barbed wire and the goon boxes and all the paraphernalia of border checkpoints, with the apparatus of surveillance. So next time I climb Carrauntoohil I will be watched all the way. CCTV will observe me driving my car (driver identified and registration number clocked) on to the ferry at Cairnryan, disembarking at Belfast, crossing the border at Newry… Then picked up again at Rosslare and monitored as I re-enter the UK in Wales.
Max-fac is a kind of reciprocal Emperor’s New Clothes. The Emperor was a nudist streaker who told everybody he was wearing a fancy suit; his subjects were so keen to please him that they developed hysteria and believed they all saw the suit. With Max-fac, the Irish border will be real, but the people need to be convinced that it does not exist. When the EU asks the UK to come up with a solution to the problem of the Irish border, I wonder if they know they are asking the impossible. This is why nobody really understands the meaning of “backstop”. It is a metaphor that refuses to function because it refers to the solution to a problem that cannot exist. Rather than backstop, a better term would have been the Scots’ bourach. Look it up.
The reason why the Brexit referendum in 2016 went the way it did was that all the passion was on the leave side. Or at least, those remainers who were passionate didn’t seem to get air time. Perhaps Jo Cox was passionate. Mr Cameron (remember him?) used to ask people to “stop banging on” about Europe. Mr Corbyn gave the EU “7 out of 10.” How can you possibly promote a cause by awarding it 7 out of 10? I remember plenty of people saying that membership of the EU “on the whole” made sound economic sense, that if we wanted a say in European affairs we had better grit our teeth and stay in. I don’t remember anybody championing the EU’s four freedoms, the freedom of movement of goods, people, services, and capital. I can’t recall anybody stating (aside from the migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean) that to be a European, and to have these freedoms, was a wonderful thing.