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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1 reply »

  1. I’ve been looking in vain for a description/definition of ‘backstop’ that’s understandable to an outsider (liberal American) like myself, this is finally it. Thank you, well done, and the cogent historical context helps too.

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