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A personal, alternative interpretation of the Northern Ireland Brexit 'Backstop'

By Charles Essery - posted Monday, 4 March 2019

I was asked by some locals and colleagues to explain the fuss over the Northern Ireland (NI) border EU Brexit issue, and in doing so put this together to save responding individually. Some have urged me to broaden my circulation for "the greater good", for which I hold them totally complicit.

Prior to the adoption of this innocent word "backstop", only the Americans among us would have used this innocuous word, to describe the safety net behind a baseball batsman, there to protect the crowd. Now it's the "cliff edge" (Jeremy Corbyn's latest contribution to impending doom political phraseology) threatening humanity in the UK in its fight to extricate itself from the invasive grip of the EU "bluffocracy".

For most of us (even those who have watched Brexit from a distance since 2015 when the then PM Cameron announced his fateful commitment for a EU Membership Referendum) the painful "negotiations' have resulted in a glorious new term to the political lexicon, namely "backstop". For now, only a "Northern Ireland Brexit Backstop" exists, but I assume when others such as the Polish and Italian "Exiteers" arise, others will spawn. "Sicily Backstop" next, anyone? I have summarised the backstop options as follows:

  1. A "Transition period" till 2020 with no checks at all between NI and Republic of Ireland (IR) no checks with mainland UK, with a single market allowing free trade and population movements (named "motionless trade")
  2. An undefined "Backstop period" with no checks at all between NI and Republic of Ireland (IR), but "some" checks with mainland UK on selected goods such as agricultural products.
  3. "No deal" solution with "heavy" checks between NI and RI, but no checks with mainland UK.

First and foremost, the issue is a political hand grenade being lobbed in by EU and RI to cause fear and havoc. In reality, it is not an issue (and I would suggest that the British know this. The Troubles will not be sparked off again. If the backstop is introduced however the Unionists may harden given the fact the New IRA have already started bombing (Londonderry Courthouse 19th January 2019).

Northern Ireland has several "tourist" spots for those of you who wish to take a "black taxi tour" of Belfast/Londonderry. These "quaint" murals are on the real 'hard borders' that cover the hotspots of Belfast akin to the old Berlin wall.The "quaintness" is only skin deep... the sentiments of Unionists run deep, and the backstop is starting to cause an itch. The Irish (particularly Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA) know this, hence their weekly media driven demands for a united Ireland referendum (with only NI and RI citizens to vote, the UK being excluded).

Secondly, the old border pre-1969 (beginning of "The Troubles") was not an issue and was very much based on a nod'n'wink, "sure an ya go Mrs Murphy". Strabane, a place I crossed many times as a kid on our numerous days trips to the Beaches & Pubs) on North Donegal's wild, beautiful coastline, was a typical pre-1969 laid-back crossing. A new hard border would be safer and more controlled, but no real hassle. Just look at Norway's modern existing high tech automated "hard borders".

Add to this the likes of advances with bitcoin (e.g. Singapore) for trade/security and even the application of drones which can now deploy synthetic aperture radar to assess traffic load/content and 'vapor sensing' technologies to detect illegal goods. The hardened British/NI border would be secure and relatively efficient (unless the Irish followed the route of their arrogant paymasters in the EU). RI would have a lot to lose if it did this, because while the NI border is an RI political flag waving issue, the real border would be between RI and England/Wales/Scotland where the vast majority of RI trade occurs en route to the EU via the UK (about 10 hours mainly on UK motorways). Yes, RI could go direct, but the direct ferry route services from RI to EU are long (20+hours), unreliable, weather-prone and dominated by tourism, rather than lorries.

We have had lots of media coverage of the 500-page agreement "negotiated/forced" by EU Bluffocrats, yet have you heard of let alone seen any coverage of the 350-page alternative document drawn up by pro-Brexiteers? My hope is that PM May has an equivalent plan... if not she is not long for her seat in Number 10. I have often commented that I feel sorry for her ... a "Remainer" having to deliver Brexit. However, I suspect PM May's negotiation team seems to have deliberately excluded anything other than the "Backstop", and that is why the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP, the 10 strong unionist MPs whom she relies on to prop up her now minority UK government) are becoming increasingly vocal. They have lived and, in some cases, suffered personally because of the trauma of "The Troubles" and be assured they understand the true fears behind those quaint wall painting "artworks" that surround Belfast's and Londonderry's hard 15-metre-high concrete/barb-wired walls.


Unlike RI's trade with the UK, NI has minimal trade with the RI (5% of its annual sales and exports). RI exports most of its EU trade transparently through the UK-funded transport network, for which Irish trucks pay no registration and often no fuel taxes. A hard border could be effective and efficient if run like Norway or Singapore, with modern surveillance. In 1980, border crossings looked like the townships from the Mad Max movies and were dangerous, as they were frequent targets of IRA bombings. British soldiers/police had to be flown in via armoured cars and helicopters to reduce IRA "opportunities".

The Irish Government, EU and NI republicans are fear-mongering in dangerous waters by promoting images of this previous form of hard border (including mock wall promos that include British soldiers with tanks and guns). Meanwhile republicans deface "Welcome to Northern Ireland" signs with either bullet holes or graffiti inserts to say, "Welcome to One Ireland". Neither are diplomatic or encouraging for a continuing peace and reflect a distinct disrespect for the unionists of NI. These sign-post defacings at the hotspot border crossings are a trivial but worrying symbol. Let's hope they continue to use these signs for their entertainment rather than resorting to soldiers, police, and the innocent population of NI... not Ireland as the ABC/BBC persistently (wishfully?) call it.

The Irish and EU are playing some nasty and dangerous high-stake games. For example, the largest ferry company (based out of Ireland) pulled the rug on opening up an old ferry service to relieve pressure should the French customs regime be 'hardened'. The French will inevitably do this, and the sabotaging of the ferry deal just 40+ days out is just an opening shot in the next stage of this international divorce.

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About the Author

Charles Essery is an independent water consultant, who has been an Australia resident since 1990.

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