What is the Northern Ireland Backstop? 

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union has thrown up a lot of new terms – ‘Brexit’  now in our everyday vocabulary – and now the phrase ‘ Backstop’.

In 1921  Ireland was partitioned

A brief overview of some of the legislation. If you want to read about the struggle for Irish Independence you will find plenty of excellent sources online and in public libraries. 


By Michael 1952 via Wikimedia Commons

The Government of Ireland Act of 1920  established parliaments for “Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland and a Council of Ireland.” 

“For the purposes of this Act, Northern Ireland shall consist of the parliamentary counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone, and the parliamentary boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry, and Southern Ireland shall consist of so much of Ireland as is not comprised within the said parliamentary counties and boroughs.”

It was also proposed to establish a Council of Ireland “With a view to the eventual establishment of a Parliament for the whole of Ireland.”

Next came The Anglo-Irish Treaty signed on the 6th December 1921.

Then The Irish Free State Constitution Act of 1922 was approved in both the Irish assembly and subsequently in  the UK Parliament. On the very next day the parliament of Northern Ireland requested its secession from the Irish Free State.

And so Northern Ireland was created dividing up Ireland into two parts.

The Republic of Ireland

“It is hereby declared that the description of the State shall be the Republic of Ireland”

Southern Ireland officially became a republic on 18 April 1949, Easter Monday, the 33rd anniversary of the beginning of the Easter Rising.

In 1955 the Republic of Ireland joined the United Nations. In 1973 it joined the EEC (European Economic Community) later to become the EU (European Union) at the same time as the UK did.

The Republic of Ireland has become a very successful independent nation changing and adapting as it grew.

Northern Ireland

The Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement) came into force on the  2nd of December 1999. It had been approved by  voters across the whole of Ireland – north and south. It was opposed by the DUP.

The result of the referendum was 

  • Northern Ireland:  Yes 71.12%, No 28.88%  Turnout 81.14%
  • Republic of Ireland:  Yes 94.39%  No 5.61% Turnout 56.26%

The Good Friday Agreement is an international agreement between 2 independent nations. It brought about the establishment of devolved government in Northern Ireland. People born  in Northern Ireland are entitled to joint citizenship of both NI and the Republic of Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement allows for a referendum to be held on Irish Reunification.

Perhaps people today have forgotten what brought about the Good Friday Agreement and why it was so overwhelmingly supported in both the Republic of  Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The Border

The ‘border’ between the Republic of Ireland and NI is 500Km long. It twists and turns crossing and recrossing roads.

There was a common travel area (1923) across the whole of Ireland so that passports were not needed to move around. The UK’s Ireland Act of 1949, stated that the Republic of Ireland was ‘not a foreign country’ for legal purposes.

Border check points were needed in the first instance for customs controls. These became targets during ‘The Troubles’. The last British military watchtowers along the border were dismantled in 2006.

Whilst the UK and the Republic of Ireland are members of the EU there exists free movement of people and goods. This means there are no border controls. When the UK leaves the EU it will also be leaving the single market which permits this freedom of movement of people and goods. Northern Ireland, as part of the UK, will now become the land border between the UK and the EU which means customs duties have to be applied – free trade no longer exists between the UK and the EU.

The UK Government Agreement

The Agreement reached between the UK Government and the EU’s Brexit negotiators would create a Northern Ireland Backstop – or in other words having no border controls between the UK and the Republic of Ireland at what would be the Northern Ireland land border. The free movement of people and goods would continue across the whole of Ireland. No time limit has been put on this within May’s agreement.

The DUP are completely opposed to the May agreement. Remember they were also the only main party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement. Without the Northern Ireland backstop there would have to be border controls imposed again between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. This would be breaking the internationally recognised Good Friday Agreement which allows for a referendum to be held on a united Ireland. Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the EU – this support was strongest in those counties around the ‘border’ area.

What happens if there is a No Deal Brexit?

With a No Deal Brexit there would be no Northern Ireland Backstop. Northern Ireland would be entitled to a referendum on Irish Unity because the terms under which the Good Friday Agreement had been reached would be in tatters.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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8 replies »

  1. This will have provided a helpful, clear explanation for a lot of people, about what can be a very confusing issue.

    If only those in charge, could be as clear-headed.

    • Morning Bernie, I suspect like me you could give them chapter and verse about ‘The Border’. A 320 mile border with I think its 310 crossing points. In fact there is one road, can’t remember its number’ which crosses the border at least three points and was closed during the ‘Troubles’.

      There are two points that are constantly missed on this side of the Nth. Channel, 1) N.Ireland voted like Scotland to remain in the EU; 2) The DUP represents about 30% of the N.Ireland electorate. Also I believe that they’re playing May like a salmon, making them, the DUP, the de facto government of the UK and its no wonder that they don’t want their Assembly back up and running. Stopping now as BP is rising!!!

  2. Living in County Sligo, and therefore near to The North, members of my family were pretty blasé about the Border, and used to nip across to get things which were cheaper there. In 1987, my sister and nephew were planning to go and get a telly, when the Enniskillen bombing happened.
    To go back to anything like those times, would be madness.
    It works just fine as it is.
    When we go across to visit my family, from here, we drive down through the North and hardy know the difference, when we cross the Border.

    The areas where the edges of the pavements are painted red, white and blue, are a bit disconcerting – we drive right through them, not stopping and not getting into any arguments with anyone. But – we can do it – drive through with freedom to do so.

  3. Excellent and concise explanation of an otherwise ‘mysterious’ but frequently used term in main stream media.This is why we need more citizen journalism.

  4. I’ve been thinking some more about this – and you’ll see why. As previously mentioned, when we go to visit family, in the Republic of Ireland, we cross from Cairn Ryan to Larne, then we drive down, and across to Sligo, or down, and down again, to Limerick. Either way, it works best, for us. Relatively small ports either side, less kerfuffle.

    I realised that, if (and I still hope it might not) – Brexit happens, and if – again – I hope not, a firm border is re-established between Northern Ireland and the Republic, that border could be ‘manned’ by British troops. I could see this adding to the possibility of the old angers and tensions being raised again.
    I would not be comfortable, travelling that way. Presently, crossing for Cain Ryan to Larne/Belfast, is fine – no tension, no problems, no military presence – why should there be? I presume there are still British troops in Northern Ireland, but they’re not the constant, worrying, presence, they used to be.
    As I mentioned, the red, white and blue in certain areas is a bit disconcerting, and a bit ….weird, to me. That’s kind-of another matter.

    So, if there is a more ’real’ border established, with possibly troops ‘manning’ it, and all that might entail in terms of tension – no, we won’t travel that way. That’s our choice. I’m not expecting The Powers That Be to make decisions, depending on what is most convenient for Mike & Bernie Bell, but, it did make me think about how that situation could bring back the tensions, constrictions, and possible reactions, to that Border.

    So, we’ll have to drive down through Scotland, and England, probably to take a Liverpool/Dublin crossing. Big cities, more hassle, not so good.
    Purely selfish, you might say, but…no …I’m thinking how that those border crossing points, possibly ‘manned’ by British soldiers, could stir up old anger, again.
    I have to admit, I would be angry, but, there again, I am a Republican. I believe in a country, being able to rule itself, as I believe in a person using their Free Will, to make choices in their life. It’s a whole way of being, as far as I’m concerned.

    • Bernie, in the years before the Good Friday Agreement we used to travel down to catch the Fishguard – Rosslare ferry which was handy as it allowed us to visit old friends in Gloucestershire and was fairly close to cousins in Enniscorthy and Cork. On my late mothers side, God rest her, my cousins farmed outside of Clones and I well remember looking over to one of the ‘Watch Towers’ with the uneasy feeling that as I was watching them they were watching me, wonder if they saw me waving to them, two fingers of course.

  5. Well, well – we used to catch that one when we lived in Wales, and Gloucestershire.

    It would be a long way for me to travel, now, as I have some problems with traveling – have to do it in stages, which adds to the days Mike has to take off work, and to the cost etc. So, not really an option, now. Thanks for mentioning it, though.

    I’m still thinking about the possible ramifications of this…..If folk stop wanting to use that crossing – Cairn Ryan could suffer. When we last crossed from there, a couple of years ago, the lady at the B&B where we stay was having an extension built, as they were doing well.
    I don’t want to be a harbinger of doom – but….if folk don’t fancy having to go through the North, and across a stricter borderline – might Cairn Ryan and the surrounding area suffer for it?
    There are so many aspects to this which are wrong. Well, the whole thing is wrong – bananas – just more confusion and complications.

    As to the number of fingers – behave yersel’!

    • Bernie, We now take the ‘Fast Ferry’ from Troon to Larne, costs about same when you knock off fuel costs plus you miss out that horrible road from Girvan to Cairn Ryan, however if tide and wind are wrong direction you have to endure the sudden movements of twin-hulled ships. But you might be used to it if you use the Pentalina to cross the Pentland???

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