In 64 days the UK will leave the EU without a transitional deal (Withdrawal Agreement). This will be a catastrophe for Ireland in that legally a physical border must then be built there. This would mean a breach of the Peace Agreement (Good Friday Agreement, GFA), and may well lead to the return of the Troubles (i.e. so-called physical force Republicanism and its Loyalist counterpart) - guns, bombs, killing, murder, kidnapping, mutilation and all the horrors we had before the 90s ceasefires. Such a scenario is imminent if no deal is reached.

It has often occurred that countries have breached earlier agreements. You vote for what gives you an immediate advantage, or what you critically require in the present moment, but you choose to disregard treaty commitments 2 or 3 or 20 years later, if and only if this proves necessary.

At worst, what breaching the backstop would mean in 2 or 4 years would be what we are otherwise going to have in 64 days.

At best, signing up to the WA means that an FTA (Free Trade Agreement) is reached in a few years time, and that this is part of a package of measures which allows the border to remain free for all time, and that circumstances never require the backstop to be implemented.

  • 3
    A relevant piece of history you don't seem to be aware of: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Troubles
    – Mark
    Aug 28, 2019 at 0:04
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    – Philipp
    Aug 29, 2019 at 7:56

4 Answers 4


I've recently explained the backstop in this answer, a few days ago.

The problem here is that one has to understand that breaching it would also breach the Peace Agreement. Some readers might not be aware just how bloody, how vicious, how terrible, that conflict was. Because they ended about 20 years ago.

The Troubles lasted decades. They saw families torn, torture, huge bombings, whole towns declared no go areas to entire communities, paramilitary policing, and ... yeah.

The debate needs to take into account what it was really like, for Irish folks both sides of the border. And for people on the UK mainland when bombings arrived there later in the Troubles (although mainland UK probably didn't suffer a fraction as much as the folks in Ireland, when looked at analytically).

Or, put another way, when one dismisses it all by saying

At worst, .... in 2 or 4 years would be a physical border in the island of Ireland.


At worst, ... breaching the GFA (Good Friday Agreement) [means] a physical border in Ireland becomes required

the answer to the question is effectively as if someone said "well, at worst a continual fratricidal partisan war a bit like that in Syria, in the Island of Ireland, for the next 50 or 100 years ...." or something.

There are some nasty situations one just don't get to dismiss as "well, at worst ..." The phrase "At worst there's a renewal of the Troubles" is almost certainly one of the phrases in that category..... and if one does research just how terrible it was, it becomes apparent that it's not an option MPs would feel sane to be risked by Brexit games.

(Also it would destroy the UK, by making clear that the wellbeing of, and commitments given to, one of its 4 provinces, isn't worth anything at all. With Scotland borderline on independence voting, and Wales being pro-EU, they'd also know that they were, in effect, also voting for the eventual breakup of their country. And a huge loss of trust diplomatically, on the world stage. Both also severe consequences.)

  • 1
    This answer could be improved by pointing out that even with the GFA in place, NI at the moment is still in a political crisis. But at least it is a non-violent crisis.
    – MSalters
    Aug 28, 2019 at 0:40
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    Wouldn't a no deal brexit also break the Good Friday Agreement?
    – Pablo
    Aug 28, 2019 at 15:20
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    Is Wales pro-EU? They had a majority vote for leaving the EU in the referendum. Not saying that means they definitely are anti-EU, but interested to know if there's more recent research to suggest they are now majority in favour of the EU.
    – Clusks
    Aug 29, 2019 at 8:53
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    @phoog What would then make reneging on the backstop a breach of the Good Friday Agreement?
    – Pablo
    Aug 29, 2019 at 10:03
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    @Pablo it's not clear to me that avoiding the backstop would breach the GFA. Why do you think it would? A hard border can and certainly will cause problems even if it's not in breach of the GFA.
    – phoog
    Aug 29, 2019 at 12:55

(Answer rewritten in response to discussion)

You just assume the FTA negotiations will not fail. Also you have the brain cells to look at the alternative course of action: NO DEAL, wherein we have an international border in Ireland in 64 days

Right, now I see what the question is; why don't the MPs on the right accept the backstop element of the WA, given that it's a sensible precaution that's not intended to be used?

The BBC has a list of objections.

This is a little difficult to explain properly, given that it's a line of reasoning that I find pretty mad, but this is a "steelman" attempt:

1) It applies in the meantime.

The whole UK agrees to the whole list of items in the backstop. That includes non-regression of competition, environment, taxation etc standards. For those that are trying to lower those standards, this is an unacceptable obstacle.

2) If they sabotage the following FTA, it will apply forever.

The rightwing have increasingly objected to any kind of agreement with the EU that might actually work. "Norway+" and so on. All of these would have provided clear routes to avoiding the problem and the backstop would not been suggested.

  • Re trade deals: you mean "being outside the Customs Union", I think. I didn't assume the EU would do nothing about breaching the Backstop. The point is to work on the basis that the Backstop will never be implemented. Also no trade deals would have been able to struck during the transition phase anyway. Aug 27, 2019 at 12:36
  • After your rewrite: yes, most MPs however are not in this neocon crazy pro-No Deal camp. Most MPs are Remainers. So they should be voting FOR the WA. This applies especially to Labour MPs, some of whom have now realised this, eg Kinnock. Aug 28, 2019 at 9:12
  • Voting for the WA does not lead to remain, though - it leads immediately and directly to Brexit. Whereas the current game of chicken leads either to Remain, No Deal, or tanks on the streets.
    – pjc50
    Aug 28, 2019 at 9:18
  • (It's not clear there is a majority of MPs for Remain yet either; if there was they would have been able to pass something in response. I believe that's being negotiated at the moment)
    – pjc50
    Aug 28, 2019 at 9:19

I would submit that considerations about this are as much or more political then they are practical. From this german's perspective here, the withdrawal agreement has been demonized and defeated in parliament to such an extent, that any serious good faith looking attempt to ratify it by parliament would draw the ire of voters and the party base all around - enough to get most voting MPs be voted out or the party knocked out of power.

At the same time, being transparent about intending to break the WA when it becomes convenient would likely cause the EU27 to rescind the offer of it and the UK would be exactly where they are now, except with some more lost international and political capital - a loss for all around.

So in summary, nobody really has a choice or opportunity to to this.

That isn't to say that both the EU27 and the UK have a vested interest of not turning northern ireland into a civil warzone to rival syria - which isn't out of the question upon unilateral breach of the good friday agreement.

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    You're absolutely right about the demonisation of the WA, which is actually 1) very favourable for the UK and 2), um, TEMPORARY (!). Yes, I wasn't suggesting that anyone be transparent about breaching the Backstop, right now. The fact is though that it could be breached in future (at whatever cost...). Aug 27, 2019 at 12:25

Very simply, to agree to the backstop is not something which can just be dropped lightly; international law is more standardised than ever.

But even more pertinent is the fact that you can't announce that you're lying (don't think the EU would be keen on signing), so no-one who opposes the backstop will support the idea. And even if you could announce you were lying, why should anyone believe you ...


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