The Northern Ireland ‘Backstop’ and British Sovereignty

This Article is written by Hugo Tuckett, an MA Geopolitics, Territory and Security student. His Article focuses on the implications of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU on the sensitive Northern Irish Border

As Brexit negotiations continue, the question of the Irish border remains one of the most contentious and challenging issues to tackle. With a land border to the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland finds itself in a unique position in these negotiations, both in terms of trade and movement of people. These matters are further complicated by the delicate balance both nations find themselves. The Good Friday Agreement was signed 1998, bringing an end to a long and bitter conflict, both sides are therefore rightly concerned with maintaining the peace.

Of the core elements facing the negotiations, the idea of the ‘backstop’ is one of the central pieces. The ‘backstop’ is essentially an insurance policy that will ensure the Irish border remains completely open to trade, people, and services in the event of a no-deal Brexit.[i] This continuance of relative normality is so central to the two nations not simply in terms of economics but also the peace between the two. Both nations of Ireland have pushed all their weight behind the necessity of a ‘backstop’, arguing that the normalisation of life on the border is a bi-product of the cross-border cooperation. This includes collaboration on such issues as trade, schools, agriculture and healthcare.[ii] However, this issue is currently in deadlock, with Theresa May refusing to accept that Northern Ireland can be treated differently to the rest of the UK. The EU meanwhile, are arguing for the necessity of checks to take place in the Irish Sea to maintain the necessary product standard for goods to enter the single market.[iii] With Theresa May keen to maintain the sovereignty of the entire UK, and avoid what hard-Brexiteers suggest amounts to the annexation of Northern Ireland by the EU, the agreement certainly has a long way to go.

The EU’s proposal on the matter of the ‘backstop’ therefore has significant implications for the sovereignty of the UK and Northern Ireland’s place in it. In a 120-page draft from February 2018, the EU argued that in order to ensure a ‘backstop’, ‘the territory of Northern Ireland… shall be considered to be part of the customs territory of the Union’.[iv] However, the notion of a separate customs arrangement has sparked a negative reaction from many in the Conservative party and the DUP who suggest it amounts to a border in the Irish Sea. To create a divide within the economic sovereignty of the UK would certainly be an unprecedented step and would represent a dismal failure for Theresa May in the Brexit negotiations. Not only would it threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK, but it would likely fuel claims for Scotland independence and potentially result in a further fraction of the UK.[v]

In sum, the challenge for Theresa May and the Brexit drive is to ensure the ‘backstop’ doesn’t undermine the sovereignty of the United Kingdom in creating a dual customs union. To do so would threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK and potentially create further issues of independence in the years to come. To write off the idea of a ‘backstop’ would on the other hand threaten a very delicate peace between two nations with a bitter and violent history. To balance these two core issues is therefore of huge importance to Brexit negotiations and any subsequent deal.



[i] O’Carroll, Lisa. ‘Brexit and the Irish border question explained’,

[ii] O’Carroll, Lisa. ‘Brexit and the Irish border question explained’,

[iii] Stone, Jon. ‘Brexit: One week left to agree deal before deadline, Irish foreign minister warns’,

[iv] BBC. ‘Theresa May rejects EU’s draft option for Northern Ireland’,

[v] McCormack, Jayne. ‘Brexit, the Irish border and the ‘battle for the union’’,

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