What the Feck is a Backstop? An Irish-Australian’s Take on Brexit
Drifting in and out of sleep in Australian Eastern Standard time, the latest news alerts come in from the hot mess that is currently Brexit as developments happen live in Westminster and Brussels. Being based in Australia, my news comes from ABC, Guardian Australia, SBS and my local newspaper, far removed from the centre of the current tension. As an Irish-Australian, my news also comes from those on the Brexit frontline.
Having lived in Scotland just before their independence referendum in 2014, the sentiment for their independence strongly resonates with me. We’ve all seen Braveheart after all. Brexit was a nightmare that came out of the blue (for most) and completely changed the context in which that referendum occurred. Scotland allowed its wagon to remain hitched to Britain, but only with the thinking that they were remaining hitched to the EU.
The Republic of Ireland has been a proud flag-waving member of the European Economic Community since 1973, enjoying the trade and manufactured social community that entails. We’ll take our Celtic Tiger over a potato famine any day thank you very much.
During these times of newfound economic prosperity in the Republic, historical resentment between north and south took a welcome back seat and we could all enjoy being rich and European and Irish together. There certainly appeared to be an amnesty between Irish from north and south abroad.
For the Irish abroad, watching the Brits eat each other alive as talk of Brexit began started out as some kind of sweet historic revenge for their shocking historical track record, but it soon became clear that this was going to affect the whole of Ireland, and not a person in Britain was talking about this.
Ireland itself, however, was onto this from the beginning. Northern Ireland did not vote for Brexit. Here’s one good reason why. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was the first time Ireland had been without a militarised domestic border since the border became a focus of civil conflict in the 1970s and no one in camp Brexit had publicly considered what this would mean in relation to British separation from Europe.
The ‘Backstop’ was hailed as the diplomatic solution that allowed a Brexit with the least disruptive outcome for Ireland. Bit of an afterthought, but it would get the job done. A ‘soft border’. This plan avoids the need for customs checks, but does mean Northern Ireland remains under EU trade regulations.
And so a soft border didn’t seem for some to fit the bill of a ‘hard Brexit’, and so we see this vital piece of diplomacy in Ireland’s ‘favour’ dismissed and held in disdain by the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Brexiters want out and they want it no strings attached. But other forces were also at play here.
Despite instant news alerts in real time, it can still take a while for in-depth analysis to reach the southern hemisphere. It was on the Australian current affairs program Four Corners that I learned of the contentious role of Arlene Foster, leader of Northern Ireland’s unionist party DUP.
The DUP, for the uninitiated, is a political wing of Ireland that advocates for connection to a united Britain (including Northern Ireland) and has significant influence in Ireland’s north. Sounds a little odd in the current context. Despite appetite for Irish unity and Northern Ireland’s rejection of Brexit, Foster threw her support behind the British conservatives as a trade-off for greater influence in Westminster. Once again British politics and economics wreak havoc in the Emerald Isle.
There’s another side to this: the history of Britain and Ireland means that many Irish around the world also have British DNA in their bloodlines. Some created mixed families by choice, others resulted out of attempts to breed out Celtic/Gaelic genes. Having said that, seeing what has happened to the Australian Indigenous people, many of us consider ourselves lucky our children were not also stolen in such systematic government practice — a topic for another time.
So as you can basically imagine, our foreheads have been a collective frown of concern for our British neighbours and our families who immigrated in search of economic prosperity as the current madness continues to unfold. In fact, I’ve been hard-pressed to find anyone from Commonwealth countries who would have voted for Brexit themselves. But there is a small detail to consider here: most British and Irish abroad don’t get a vote when it comes to Brexit.
So where does this leave us? Personally, I am a dual Irish-Australian citizen, so my membership of the EU is secure (for now). What we have is a fast-approaching deadline, the 31st of October, that has already been pushed back, and bugger all detail from the current British government about how they plan to either agree on a compromise deal with the EU or manage an exit with no details at all.
The Irish diaspora travel back to Ireland when we can to see family, friends or reconnect, which could be anywhere between multiple times yearly to once every 10-to-20 years. Each time we return, much has changed, but usually, we are still greeted by the same old 40 shades of green and a boiling kettle. This time is a little different. From afar we see an EU that is being undermined in France, Holland and Germany beyond Brexit. It is an unusual feeling to see stability disintegrate and feel mostly powerless to influence a good outcome.
All in all, the Irish abroad seem to have found that keeping ourselves connected to culture, and a few spicy memes help significantly as we wait out a likely unwelcome outcome with a new determination that our Emerald Isle will not again disintegrate into civil conflict of British creation.
Photo by Jaime Casap