Sunday, 3 July 2022 – 22:33

Brexit and the backstop – what is the problem?

Cracks have started to appear in the Conservative-DUP confidence and supply agreement, but why?

In recent weeks, the DUP have become increasingly critical of the Prime Minister, in particular her Brexit draft agreement. 

This is because of the DUPs approach to the backstop, and to understand why this is an issue, we need to understand more about who the DUP are.

The backstop ties Northern Ireland to the EU through the Customs Union. This is an attempt by both sides in the agreement to prevent the creation of a hard boarder on the island or Ireland. A hard border, it is feared, could lead to the breakdown of the Good Friday Agreement which successful negotiated a cease fire between unionists and nationalists. 

The DUP, or the Democratic Unionist Party in full, are a pro-union party. That is pro-UK, not Europe. They are pro-Brexit and socially conservative with strong and long-held views over abortion. The DUP started as a one-man band, with Rev Ian Paisley at its helm. 

Paisley, a fundamentalist Protestant preacher, founded the party in 1971 in opposition to what he saw as the liberal approach of the Ulster Unionists. The Unionists were regarded as the party of the political establishment since Northern Ireland was founded in 1921. The DUP’s opposition, the nationalists, want to see the Irish border removed and rule from Westminster. The DUP on the other hand want the link with Britain preserved. From 2005, the DUP replaced the Unionists as the party which could legitimately claim to speak for all unionism. Power sharing began with Sinn Fein, their political opposition, in 2007. 

The critical issue for the DUP therefore, is to prevent any divergence in policy between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain. And it is here that the DUP has an issue with the backstop, as it proposes to do exactly that. It treats Northern Ireland differently to England, Scotland and Wales. This is their red line, and after the 2017 General Election, it was clear that Theresa May needs the 10 DUP MPs to survive on key votes.

For the DUP, a backstop may also lead to further calls for the reunification of Ireland, seriously posing a threat for the union. Equally, on the mainland, the backstop threatens the future of UK in more than one way. For the SNP, the Scottish Nationalist Party, Northern Ireland is privileged to have access to the Customs Union, a privilege not open to them leading to a renewed call for independence. 

So, if neither the DUP, nor the SNP are happy with the backstop, why doesn’t Mrs May change her policy? 

As has been mentioned, taking Northern Ireland out of the Customs Union and Single Market fully will lead to a hard border, as it is the only land border with the EU. This is an issue in regards to the good Friday Agreement, with no Prime Minister willing to end a peace-keeping agreement. 

The other option for the Prime Minister is to commit the entire UK to the customs Union, therefore preventing a hard border, and appeasing the DUP by not diverging. However, there are issues here too. The DUP are pro-Brexit, so will be dissatisfied with a ‘soft Brexit’, but arguably this is the least worst option given the divergence alternative. This would also do damage within the Tory Party, as with senior Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg, Johnson, Davis all arguing for ‘hard Brexit’, a customs union would cause serious leadership issues for Mrs May. Finally, this is also Labour Party policy, and in terms of simply party policy, committing to a Customs Union would not be a vote of confidence in the Prime Minister’s brexit plan. 

Skip to content