Back to the Backstop (Possibly the DUP are not sensible?)


It has been a fairly grim week Brexit-wise with the HoC again putting fantasy over reality.  I have to admit to being so depressed by the whole saga I have found it difficult to put pen to paper. Fortunately three of my favourite commentators, Prof Chris Grey, Ian Dunt and Prof Simon-Wren Lewis have written excellent pieces. Indeed Chris Grey has written two this week Brexit: bewilderment, dismay and shame, and the more optimistic Brexiters are finally being forced to face reality, both well worth reading in full. A brief extract of the former:

In fact, I was wrong to say that bewilderment and dismay are the only feelings to be had about what is happening. There is also shame. The shame not so much of being a member of a country where such political oafery exists – all countries have their share of that, after all – but of one whose entire political class has brought us to this. I don’t (just) mean Brexit, I mean a country made so weak and incompetent that it is reduced to begging the friends it has reviled for non-existent solutions to problems of its own making, for fear of fantasists, charlatans, numbskulls and thugs.

Some light relief can be had by categorising the various players into the four options, though some fit more than one category.

The latter Chris Grey piece is a bit more hopeful:

The EU is doing what the UK has failed to do:

In this sense the EU is doing what the UK collectively – its politics and media, more particularly – has signally failed to do: insist that however much Brexiters dislike them facts are facts and will not yield to any amount of rhetoric or be changed by any amount of ‘true faith’. Instead, Brexiters have been pandered to by a media that either trumpets their lies or fails to challenge them, sometimes by treating them as ‘equivalent’ to any other beliefs.

I can’t say I am so hopeful. As David Alan Green commented on twitter, where Orwell got it wrong was that it isn’t necessary to alter the historical record as people believe what they want to believe. True faith trumps reality.

There is also the sovereignty argument, which seems extremely seductive. I have never understood this believing that EU membership amplifies rather than reduces sovereignty. Gary Younge explores this in an interesting Guardian piece So, poorer Brexiters voted to be worse off? There’s nothing wrong in that.

This segues nicely into Prof Simon Wren-Lewis’s Why the UK cannot see that Brexit is utterly, utterly stupid and New Statesman article. An extract:

If you talk to almost anyone overseas, except those at the right wing extreme (like Trump) or part of a tiny minority of the left, their reaction to Brexit is similar to the former Prime Minister of Finland. What the UK is doing is utterly, utterly stupid. An act of self harm with no point, no upside. Now sometimes outside opinion is based on incomplete or biased information and should be discounted, but on Brexit it is spot on. So why are so many people in the UK unable to see what outsiders can see quite clearly.

This is of course a theme that Wren-Lewis looked at in “The Lies we were told”, book and blog post. Where he looks not only at Brexit but “austerity” and the 2015 GE. The common theme he argues is the pernicious nature of the right wing press and the BBC not doing its job.

Ian Dunt does not pull his punches on the Malthouse Compromise which has brought the Tory party together (but possibly just for a few days)

But there is a problem with the compromise: it is a useless pile of ERG sex fantasies, dressed up in nonsense legalese to hide its blushes. It would not get the support of the EU, it cannot be done in time, it does not solve the problems it claims to, it contains no new ideas, it is legally and strategically unsound, grossly misleading and full of lies about WTO laws its authors have not fully understood.

In summary therefore it has not been a good week Brexit-wise.

How not to make Friends and Influence People – Germany and Ireland

The UK now wants the removal of the hated Backstop. What seems to be forgotten was that the initial EU proposal was for a NI only backstop. The NI economy is tiny – less than 2% of the UK economy and poses very little threat. The UK as the Brexiters continue telling us is the 5th largest economy in the world and the EU was very reluctant to extend it to the entire UK.

May however insisted that it was a necessary and sufficient condition for the UK to agree to the Withdrawal Agreement. Ireland was very supportive behind the scenes, and feels a sense of betrayal. Sabine Weyand in a rare public appearance (which I would urge everyone to watch in full) describes the rejection of the backstop as “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” She is vastly more diplomatic than Ian Dunt but very clearly said all the technology alternatives to the Backstop had been forensically examined over months and shown not to work.

If there is to be movement however I would suggest a charm offensive to both the Irish who would have to agree to any change to the backstop and Germany as the most powerful member of the EU (though German influence is not as all powerful as many in the UK believe). Trust also is key – and it is in very short supply. Sadly the exact opposite seems to be happening.

Germany seems to be getting the lions share of hostility. Continuous and escalating references to the 2nd world war – fabricated history and gratuitous insults. What is deeply depressing is that the Germans admire the English very much. Even May is going to “Battle for Britain and Northern Ireland.” (By NI she means the DUP as the backstop is highly popular in NI). Low points were the ripping up of the letter from Airbus’s CEO by Mark Francois proclaiming “My father Reginald Francois was a D-Day veteran he never submitted to bullying by any German, neither will his son” and Kawczynski claiming the UK got no Marshall Plan aid unlike Germany. In truth the UK got considerably more Marshall Plan aid than Germany, but what is depressing is despite the fact that he has been repeatedly shown to be incorrect he refused to retract. One from the Newt Gingrich school “It doesn’t matter whats true – just what people believe to be true.”

Ireland being accused of Anglophobia, where the exact opposite is the case. The Irish do not hate the English.

Many years ago when I was a lecturer in Leeds Poly one of my English colleagues said his grandfather was an electrical engineer who worked at a telegraph station in the Wexford region of Ireland in the early 20th cent. He said very often the equipment would be vandalised, but invariably the next day people would come around with presents of bread, fish etc. apologising and stating “we love you, it is the UK government and system we hate.”

I think that sums it up nicely. The Irish love Britain but hate Brexit and the Brexiters. There is near complete consensus across political and civic society that Brexit is a bad thing and that backstop is necessary. There are only a handful that think otherwise but of course the BBC goes out of its way to seek out Ray Bassett or Ruth Dudley Edwards who represent possibly 5% of the population at best. Indeed as I said before the only Irish person I know who voted for Brexit (and is an Irish Republican) did so on the basis that it would harm England.

What happen’s next?

There is near consensus in Ireland that the backstop is necessary across all political parties and with the public in general. The probability of the Irish backing down is near zero. There is a higher probability that cracks will occur in the EU, but I would still say the probability is very low. Despite frantic efforts by the UK to roll Ireland over during the past few years, solidarity has been rock solid. The condescending tone the BBC seems to take when interviewing Irish politicians is also only going to strengthen resolve.

From the perspective of the EU outcomes in order of favourability are:

  1. No Brexit
  2. An EEA/Norway style solution.
  3. Current Brexit deal
  4. No deal
  5. A deal either threathens the integrity of the Single Market or prioritise a leaving state over an existing member (e.g. Ireland).

My feelers however tell me that the EU is getting so fed up with the UK that option one may no longer be as favoured as it once was.

From the Irish one long term dream is a United Ireland, but as argued previously it would be better if Northern Ireland had more time to heal. As in common with many recent opinion polls (see also the OFOCNI one) the December Lucid Talk one as shown in Fig 1. shows a substantial majority for a UI in the case of a hard Brexit (a 13% margin).

Fig. 1 NI voting intentions under various scenarios.


It might be useful to say a bit more about demographics. The latest Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency report on the Labour Market (Jan 2019) has had a brief analysis by Babgordub here.

From the report: “There were 643,000 Protestants aged 16 and over in 1990; in 2017 this figure has decreased, to 612,000. Over this period, the number of Catholics increased by 165,000, or 38%, from 440,000 to 605,000. The number of people aged 16 and over classified as other/non-determined’ has more than trebled from 63,000 to 245,000 between 1990 and 2017″ 

These figures are from two years ago and there were only  7000 more people over 16 self-identifying as Protestant rather than Catholic.

Bangordub breaks down the age cohorts further we can see the following:

Age (2017) Catholic Protestant
16+ 41% 42%
16 – 24 45% 33%
16 – 59 43% 38%
60+ 35% 54%


Only in the over 60s is there a Protestant majority. Other data shows school age children were 51% Catholic and 37% Protestant at the last census in 2011 and the demographics are going to look even more stark in 2021.

Of course the correlation between being Catholic and Nationalist and Protestant and Unionist is not 100% but it is around 95%. Every effort should be being made by sensible Unionists to keep the status quo within the EU. Possibly the DUP are not sensible.


From both the Irish and EU perspective “No Deal” is preferable to ditching the backstop. May surely knows this and is running down the clock.  The most the UK is likely to get are some further non legally binding assurances. Indeed even if the EU caves in on the Backstop, and reopens the Withdrwal Agreement the Brexiter Ultras will always want more. The disaster capitalists and those supporting a Singapore on Thames economy want “No Deal”.   I still hope the UK stays in the EU.  Sadly the betting odds seem to favour May’s deal with very minor tweaks being the most likely option.


  1. Samuel Johnson -

    There are at least some Germans making noises to the effect that Ireland will have a choice: put up a hard border (partition the country) or be excluded from the single market — via controls at continental ports. (Report in yesterday. One allegedly may effectively represent Merkel’s point of view).

    Ireland held the EU presidency in the run up to German reunification and did a lot diplomatically to help overcome objections to it (Thatcher was opposed to it). Kohl made clear to Garret Fitzgerald, Taoiseach at the time, that Germany would not forget Ireland’s friendship. Ireland’s efforts reflected understanding of the pain of partition not seeking a quid pro quo.

    It’s almost unthinkable that Germany would display the kind of bad faith that Ireland has endured from the British for centuries, in particular from the Conservatives in the last century. But not impossible. There certainly isn’t much Ireland can do if the choice is destroy Ireland’s economy or destroy that of NI other than start making a full court press for Irish unity — a potentially high risk strategy in terms reigniting conflict. This would, ironically, be a direct result of German intervention and be a heavv moral responsibility for a county that, more than any other, has helped secure peace in Europe.

    It would be very disappointing. However, as this article shows there is not much doubt about which way the result would go, only how many lives would be lost before it was no longer contested. The Irish preference has been strategic patience. Leo Varadkar has indicated he’d prefer a 70:30 vote for unity than 50%+1 – – angering Irish nationalists in NI, but rational given his responsibility to his electorate.

    I would make it Irish govt policy to offer Irish citizenship to any UK or EU citizen resident in NI, whether born there or not, if legally resident and on the electoral register at the time of any referendum. That might offer a shortcut for some to EU citizenship, provide an economic fillip to NI (of course, one would follow provided peace could be maintained), and of course to the future all-island economy.

  2. Sean Danaher -


    thanks. I though Charlie Haughey was Taoiseach at the time of German reunification, but governments changed quite rapidly in the ’80s so I would need to check.

    What you portray is a fairly nightmare scenario as probably the single thing that makes Ireland competitive is SM membership – being in some form of UK wide customs territory would be a horrendous outcome – both economically but far more psychologically.

    Fast tracking unity would be an option and a 50%+1 majority for a UI very achievable, but greater than a 60%-40% not. There are still about 40% if the NI population that are die in the ditch Unionists – the scars are too bitter and NI needs more time to heal. Some might take to violence, though hopefully without the security force and state collusion which made the Loyalists such a force during the Troubles.

    Ireland also needs to move towards a free at the point of delivery health service – the NHS with all its faults is still admired. There also needs to be some years of ground work and a series of white papers.

    1. Samuel Johnson -

      I may be misrembering Garret’s position at the time (he was minister for foreign affairs at one point) but I recall reading of Ireland’s diplomacy being acknowledged. Agree with rest.

      1. Sean Danaher -

        Yes I agree. Thatcher was dead set against German Reunification. There is some information here:

        I know Enda Kenny got considerable German help when he secured NI’s automatic entry to the EU after reunification using the E. German protocol. Punched the air apparently according to Tony Connolly’s book.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      The GFA is an intentional treaty lodged at the United Nations and any challenge has to go through the Court of Arbitration in the Hague. I would need to check if an individual can take a case. Ceartainly for the sister body, the ECJ only sovereign governments can bring a case.

      I suspect Trimble will be using domestic legislation – the NI act 1998 but is on very shaky ground, as no parliament can bind the hands of a future parliament under UK law. Also the constitutional lawyers in QUB see no problem

      There was a previous case arguing that Brexit was a violation of the constitutional position of NI, which requires consent under the GFA, but that was thrown out.

      The lack of a written constitution and the ability of any parliament not be bound by a previous parliament could be very scary if the far right wing ERG ultras get into power. This is exactly why the EU want the backstop in terms of an international treaty (and exactly why the ERG don’t).

      The GFA of course guarantees that both communities in NI need to be treated absolutely impartially. This is being blatantly violated by HMG. There have been behind the scenes discussions and rumours that the Irish Gov are seriously thinking of taking HMG to the Hague, but I have heard nothing recently.

      1. Peter May -

        Fairly certain it will be a UK judicial review – presumably the GFA is also UK legislation.

  3. Sean Danaher -


    I am not a lawyer but I think the NI Act 1998 is the domestic part of the GFA, which is the domestic legislation which translates the GFA into UK law.

    I think May be backtracking on not backing the backstop. She is visiting NI at present and she may be discovering how popular the backstop actually is in NI if she isn’t ushered around by her DUP minders like visitors to North Korea.

    1. SeaanUiNeill -

      Sean, as I remember it the Supreme Court ruling of January 2017 on the issue of whether triggering Article 50 infringed the Belfast Agreement through a major constitutional alteration of our current status clearly stated that the issue was non-justible because as an
      international treaty the terms of the Belfast
      Agreement had no actual existence in English
      common law outside of the simple immediate implementation issues of the Northern Ireland Act of 1998. It is well worth reading the Act and the Agreement both to see just how little purchase one actually has outside of a recourse to international courts. That is perhaps why the “understood” role of a U.K. and Irish common membership of the EU has been so very important in offering access to the CJEU as supetnational legal arbiter, and why some of us in the north of Ireland have seen common membership of the EU as the most significant medium of “enforcement” for our expectations of the Belfast Agreement.

      1. Sean Danaher -


        thanks for the clarification. it seems Trimble’s appeal is doomed. I have never rated Trimble – unlike Hume – a Nelson Mandela to Trimble’s de Klerk, but it takes two to tango. Unlike the DUP who hated the Belfast Agreement.

        I did worry about John Hume. The last time I met him he smelt if he had an 80 cigs a day habit – and so sad that such a brilliant and great statesman has such severe dementia.

        Are things any clearer after May’s visit? As David Alan Green tweeted:

        “I am absolutely clear that we have made an absolutely clear commitment that our absolute and clear commitments that we are clear and absolute will always be clear and absolute,” the Prime Minister said.

        Any sign of May genuinely

  4. Sean Danaher -

    On Trimble’s Challenge more here:

    “[His] ..argument runs straight into the problem that the UK Supreme Court already considered the question of how the principle of consent operates. When considering a 2017 legal challenge to Brexit, the court found that consent only applies to the question of whether Northern Ireland remains part of the UK.

    Trimble’s possible legal challenge, if it ever gets off the ground, looks like a hiding to nothing. Worse, he is falling into line with Foster in adopting an approach to Brexit that punches holes in his own legacy.”

    Trimble seems a very diminished figure these days.

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