Brexit: Influential think tank proposes Irish backstop solution

Ben Gartside
Britain's prime minister Boris Johnson, left, and Irish PM Leo Varadkar at a join press conference in Dublin earlier this month. Photo: Lorraine O'Sullivan/AFP/Getty

Open Europe, an influential think tank, has released a plan it claims will help solve the Brexit crisis as UK hurtles towards 31 October deadline.

The think tank has proposed changes to the backstop in a five-point report including adoption of a “Stormont Lock”, which would give Northern Ireland a role in managing further divergence from Great Britain. The enhancement of north-south institutions to supervise the development of “alternative arrangements” to avoid a backstop. The use of an international mediator, involving US or Commonwealth countries as put forward by the Good Friday Agreement. Consulting WTO for trade disputes. And finally the re-establishment of the British-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference (BIIC) to monitor east-west trade.

Open Europe’s policy analyst David Shiels said: “Brexit represents a major challenge for the United Kingdom and Ireland. The negotiations leading to the Withdrawal Agreement have already put a strain on the bilateral relationship, with fault on both sides.

“In Northern Ireland, both nationalists and unionists have legitimate concerns about how Brexit will work out. The need to keep an open border in Ireland is recognised by all sides, but the means of achieving that must be workable for the UK as well as the EU.”

The report, however, states that the current backstop prioritises the relationship between Northern Ireland and the single market over that between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. It also said that by proposing new arrangements for the economic governance of Northern Ireland on a potentially permanent basis, the Withdrawal Agreement did not meet the same tests for democratic consent and cross-community support as the Good Friday Agreement itself.

“The problem with the backstop is that it proposes new arrangements for Northern Ireland without taking into account the political sensitivities involved. There has been a lot of talk of technical solutions to the border, but a political solution is needed first,” Shiels said.

“Finding a way through the current impasse will require some creativity. This is not about any of the parties winning or losing but finding a mutually acceptable compromise, in a way that is consistent with the letter and spirit of the Belfast Agreement.”

Incidentally, Henry Newman, a former director of Open Europe, is now a senior adviser to Michael Gove.