In his first address to lawmakers as the newly appointed prime minister of Britain last week, Boris Johnson made one thing clear: He does not support the idea of an Irish backstop, a measure that would tie Britain to European trade policies as a way to maintain a soft border between Ireland and northern Ireland.
“No country that values its independence and indeed its self-respect could agree to a treaty which signed away our economic independence and self-government as this backstop does,” Johnson said. “If an agreement is to be reached, it must be clearly understood that the way to the deal goes by way of the abolition of the backstop.”
The comments provoked disbelief in Ireland and elsewhere in the European Union, where leaders see maintaining the backstop as nonnegotiable.
On Tuesday, British and Irish media reported that Johnson and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar had a terse phone call — their first since Johnson became Britain’s leader — in which Varadkar “emphasized to the prime minister that the backstop was necessary as a consequence of decisions taken in the UK and by the UK government.”
The border is a highly sensitive issue in Ireland because its current arrangement was negotiated as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that put an end to the 30-year period known as “the Troubles.”
During that time, sectarian violence between Unionists, who wanted Northern Ireland to stay part of the United Kingdom, and Nationalists, who wanted it to belong to the Republic of Ireland, killed more than 3,500.
Now, there are fears that the reinstatement of tight border controls between the two sides could ignite a dangerous new wave of tensions reminiscent of that era.
Many are also eager to maintain the status quo because it would help to preserve the relatively unrestricted trade that exists between Northern Ireland and Ireland. But British lawmakers who oppose the backstop have expressed concerns that it will force Britain to continue to abide by E.U. trade rules.
After Johnson’s remarks last week, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Johnson appeared to “have made a deliberate decision to set Britain on a collision course with the E.U. and with Ireland.”
Varadkar told Irish broadcaster RTÉ that Johnson’s remarks were “not in the real world.”
“Listening to what he said today, I got the impression that he wasn’t just talking about deleting the backstop, he was talking about a whole new deal — a better deal for Britain,” Varadkar said, referring to Johnson’s remarks. “That is not going to happen.”
Speaking in Donegal, Ireland, on Friday, Varadkar said he thinks that if Britain leaves the E.U. without a deal, the unity of the United Kingdom could be drawn into question.
“I think increasingly you see liberal Protestants and unionists who will start to ask where they feel more at home,” he said. “One of the things that ironically could really undermine the union of the U.K. is a hard Brexit, both for Northern Ireland and for Scotland, and that is a problem they are going to have to face.”
But over the weekend, Johnson doubled down on the comments, calling a backstop “anti-democratic.”
Although the Troubles technically ended in the late 1990s, a number of violent incidents have rocked the area near the Irish border in Northern Ireland in recent months. In April, journalist Lyra McKee was shot and killed after riots broke out in the northern Irish town of Londonderry, home to a large population of Irish nationalists.
Former U.S. senator George J. Mitchell, who chaired the peace talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post late last year that changing the border “could increase the possibility of a resumption of violence.”
Fears over a hard border deepened in January, after then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal was overwhelmingly struck down by British lawmakers, who ordered her to return to the drawing board and determine a new arrangement for the border with Ireland. Some who oppose a hard border saw that as May essentially reneging on the Good Friday Agreement, a claim May insisted was untrue. E.U. leaders made clear at that time that the backstop was nonnegotiable.
But now, Johnson’s renewed calls to abolish the backstop that would protect the current border arrangements have left many confused about what may come next.
Johnson has threatened to leave the E.U. without a deal if he can’t renegotiate a new one by the October deadline. And E.U. commissioner Claude Juncker has made clear that the E.U. is unwilling to consider a renegotiation — especially one that abolishes the backstop. In his first call with Johnson last week, he said the most recently negotiated arrangement was “the best and only agreement possible."
And chief E.U. Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier called Johnson’s insistence on removing the Irish backstop “unacceptable.”