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How do you Solve a Problem Like the Backstop?

How do you Solve a Problem Like the Backstop?

There’s been plenty of toing and froing this week, but has there been any movement? On the deadlocked Brexit talks? As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, that’s quite another matter.

Shock! Horror! It’s said ministers will give the green light to fully driverless cars! Here in UK! By the end of this year!

But what’s the big deal? We’ve had a driverless government for the last two-and-a-half years. And driverless opposition. At least that’s the word down the pub.

Brexit votes are expected in coming days. But, like most of the others so far, they won’t mean much.

The real deal is more likely towards the end of the month, perhaps even later. Theresa May’s calculation being that MP’s will be so desperately in need of a trip to the loo by then they’ll go for anything, even her lash-up of a deal, rather than face the near-certainty of crashing out of Europe without any agreement.

Already the economy’s performed worse this year than at any time since the recession of ten years ago. The Bank of England mentions an ‘intensification’ of Brexit uncertainties. Meaning business leaders too are heading for the bog.

Closer to all our trousers, it looks like a no-deal will mean roaming charges on mobile calls from Europe will be back. Though at least the government’s finally admitted signing up a company with no ships to ferry stuff across the channel if needed was a rubbish idea.

Everyone’s getting edgy, including former top Whitehall mandarins. Even the normally good-humoured European Council President Donald Tusk has suggested there’s a ‘special place in hell’ for politicians who campaigned for Brexit without any idea how to safely deliver it.

That was going it, by anyone’s standards. Theresa May’s softly spoken deputy, David Lidington, suggested it ‘wasn’t the most brilliant diplomacy in the world’.

Still, she’s plodding on with her own brilliant diplomacy. Bit of legal jiggery-pokery on the Irish backstop, please, pretty please, and parliament will sign it all off. Then we can start talking about trade.

But at this point, it’s worth going over a slice of little-reported history. At least little reported this side of the Irish Sea. After all, Belfast is hardly Belsize Park, is it, darlings.

The euphemistically-termed ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland were a scarcely suppressed civil war, lasting decades and costing some three-and-a-half thousand lives. Key combatants were Protestants determined to remain part of the United Kingdom and Catholics who wanted to become part of a united Ireland.

It all goes back to a centuries-old British policy of ethnic cleansing. A brutal term, but Ulster was stuffed with wave after wave of Presbyterian Scots and Protestant English, while most of the Catholic locals were told to hop it.

The fighting that began in the late 1960’s only ended when political leaders on both sides decided they wanted something better for their grandchildren than this bloody mess.

However, the Good Friday Agreement is only twenty years old. And after a wholesale exercise in mutual slaughter people don’t just kiss and make up.

Think of the Fawlty Towers ‘don’t mention the war’ scene. Funny, but true. And pretty much how they tend to manage the situation in Northern Ireland these days. They just don’t go there.

But the border between the north and south of Ireland will, after Brexit, become the border between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

If a new trade deal finally worked out with the bloc means there are tariffs to be paid then normal practice would have it there’d need to be checkpoints.

Rather a lot of them in this case, as between the Republic of Ireland and the six counties of Ulster there are some three hundred potential crossing points.

Any one of these barriers would be an obvious target for dissident paramilitaries wanting to keep up the armed struggle. And it wouldn’t take many shootings or bombings to get everyone at one another’s throats again.

Hence the so-called backstop. An insurance policy designed to make sure that whatever happens in the trade talks there won’t be any checkpoints. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, flashpoints.

The Brexiteers say it must be time-limited, and we Brits really must be able to knock it on the head if we wish. So that’s May’s new pitch.

To which the EU have said all along that’s a funny kind of insurance policy. Imagine you cancel the insurance on your house and the next week it goes up in flames. Oopsie daisy.

So, they’re wondering, what part of ‘no’ do you not understand? You’re acting like little Fido. Perfectly satisfied with your perfectly good dinner, but suddenly whining for more. Holding up a paw and dribbling. Pain in the ask-no-questions.

And they have a point. Remember, up until a week or so back May was insisting her meticulously negotiated deal was perfectly good, and there was no way she’d try and change it.

She did change her tune, though, when parliament told her to shove it. Hence all the chatter in Brussels, Ireland and, most importantly, Westminster.

How far she’ll try and push it depends on what her own party will let her get away with. She’s trundling ahead in a tank but forced to pay more attention to the wing mirror than the gunsight.

Right behind her, howitzers at the ready, are Brexit ultras, ostensibly working in a spirit of co-operation with remainers on a way forward that works for everyone.

But the interface between the two wings of the Tory party has been likened to the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939. Not built to last.


Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.

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