Watching both the BBC news and Sky news the term ‘backstop’ has been discussed practically every night over the last week. Of course, this is referring to the current Brexit negotiations. The term ‘backstop’ has been defined as “a thing placed at the rear of something as a barrier or support”. In December 2017, the UK Prime Minister agreed with her EU counter parts that a ‘backstop’ to maintain a common regulatory area for Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland should be included in any Brexit agreement, unless another solution could be found. It was an effort to avoid a ‘hard border’ and to uphold the ‘Good Friday Agreement’, after the UK leaves the EU in 2019.
If the North of Ireland voted to reunite with the rest of the country, it would cost Dublin about 11 billion Euros a year, which would lower the living standards on the island by 15%. Of course, other economists argue it would be far less, as the North would no longer make contributions to London in any shape or form. Equally, Northern farmers would be guaranteed farm subsidies, and not have to depend on London. Whether the sum is 11 billion or something much less, the Dublin government will need to be cautious, as this type of money can only come from extra taxes and financial help from Brussels.
Likewise, these economists would argue that any future London government might be severely tempted to cut the present public expenditure per head to Northern Ireland which is 121% over the UK average. This may be very tempting for the London government if the UK goes into a recession after Brexit. This possible reality, along with the loss of EU subsidies, which some commentators put at some 7 billion, will certainly motivate some to view reunification, given the right guarantees, in a positive light.
A recent poll suggests, with a strong warning on the verb ‘suggest’, that the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain may not be as solid as many supposed. The Deltapoll found that 56% would favour reunification with the rest of Ireland in the event of a hard Brexit. In the unlikely event that the UK will stay in the EU, 52% would then prefer to remain inside the UK. In the Brexit referendum, Northern Ireland voted 56% to remain in the EU. Yes, the same percentage as the Deltapoll found.
Northern Ireland, which was separated from the rest of Ireland in 1921, has a population of about 1.8 million people and covers an area of about 14,130 Km square. If the UK can negotiate a ‘soft’ Brexit including the ‘backstop’, which will guarantee a common regulatory area on the entire island, then the advantages of the present status quo of an open border can be maintained. If the UK doesn’t negotiate a ‘soft’ Brexit, then Dublin, Belfast and London will have a problem on their hands as both Unionists and Nationalists will have to decide where their interests lie. The Salzburg meeting this week demonstrate that whatever happens, the ‘backstop’ will be key in the UK-EU negotiations over the next two months.