13 March 2019, The Tablet

Brexit and the Irish backstop

Brexit and the Irish backstop

Prime Minister Tony Blair (right) US Senator George Mitchell (centre) and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern after they signed the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998
Photo: PA


An Irish bishop whose diocese of Raphoe covers most of Donegal and borders Northern Ireland argues that the Irish backstop issue is being wrongly used as a stick in the Brexit fight

There was a time, not long ago, when the inevitability of violence in Northern Ireland was accepted as a tragic given. The opposing national loyalties, British and Irish, unionist and nationalist, and the conflicting constitutional claims that backed them up formed a square that could never be circled. For years this binary analysis condemned us to a hopeless stand-off and to cyclical outbreaks of violent unrest; a policy of containment was the least worst solution it was possible to imagine.
Then along came the European Union. The EU offered a bigger context in which the binary analysis could be looked at again. The United Kingdom and Ireland’s common membership of the EU was certainly not the only factor that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the peace that it has brought to Ireland. But it provided a shared framework within which unionist and nationalist identities could be seen as complementary, as equal partners, within the contested space that is Northern Ireland. 
In recent weeks, the UK has suffered further convulsions, with the deepening standoff between those who want to be part of the big context that is the EU and those who want to be free of its constraints. And in the middle, the relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK sticks out like a sore thumb. But can this really be so? Could the so-called “stumbling block” of the Irish backstop actually be a proxy for something else?

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