THE draft agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, published a month ago, addresses a wide range of issues, including rights of citizens, financial liabilities, institutional responsibilities, and transition arrangements. The section of the document that has received most political and media attention has been a detailed protocol that deals with the future relationship between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

This section of the Withdrawal Agreement begins with a long list of reasons why the issue of the Irish border is significant in terms of the historical context of Anglo-Irish relationships and the specific terms of the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998. It then sets out a temporary framework for ensuring an open border in Ireland, guaranteeing free movement of people and trade, until such time that a permanent solution can be found. This protocol has become known as the “backstop”. It exists as a means of avoiding any risk of disruption to life for people in Ireland resulting from the re-introduction of border posts.

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The “backstop” has been extremely difficult for Brexiteers to accept, because an open border is only possible if Northern Ireland (and by implication, all of the UK) continues to adhere to EU regulations. They have also been unhappy with the clause that states that the backstop can only be rescinded by mutual agreement: in the final analysis, the UK can only be free of EU rules with the permission of the EU.

Arguments around the pros and cons of the backstop have been a key element in the recent chaos in Westminster. However, for the most part these arguments have avoided talking openly and honestly about what the backstop is, and why it exists.

The UK, EU and wider international community all agree that the Good Friday Agreement is necessary in order to avoid a return to political violence in Ireland. This is important for everyone in the UK and Ireland, not only those who live in Northern Ireland, because in the past this violence has spilled over into mainland Britain.

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From the start of the Brexit negotiations, both sides agreed that it was essential to retain an open border. The negotiations, over a period of more than two years, have failed to come up with a viable plan for doing this. The draft agreement and protocol, in turn, do not offer any suggestions around what that plan might look like, for example by outlining potentially promising strategies that have been identified in previous discussion and just need further work to be fleshed out.

The “backstop” therefore reflects a failure in the basic negotiations. Even if we do not like the positions that have been reached, many other issues have been agreed between the UK Government and the EU. By contrast, the question of how to retain an open border in Ireland when the UK is no longer a member of the EU is the one key element of the negotiations where there has been a failure to find an agreed solution.

In any kind of impasse, it is important to pay attention to what is not being said. From a Scottish perspective, there are some very important things around the relationship between Ireland and the UK that are not being said.

I grew up in a community where there were significant tensions between Protestants and Catholic. In the words of the Proclaimers song, the question “what school did you go to?” did not mean what it said. Although these tensions have eased, as Scotland has become more secular and culturally diverse, and individuals have embraced a multiplicity of spiritualities, they have not gone away. There are still sectarian chants at football matches, Orange Order marches, and areas of job discrimination. We know what this is all about. This allows us to at least begin to appreciate the emotional reality of people in Northern Ireland who have lost a relative to religious violence. We understand how hard it is for communities, or a whole country, to move on from such deeply rooted prejudices. We respect the efforts of those individuals and organisations who build bridges and create settings within which new relationships can thrive can take place. So, one way that a Scottish perspective is important is around making it clear that this troubled history, these painful emotions, these efforts to move forward, need to be part of the Brexit conversation.

Another significant Scottish perspective arises from an understanding of the importance of political systems that are close to the people they serve. The Scottish Parliament has been able to achieve much in terms of policies and services that reflect the distinctive needs and values of the people of Scotland. Translating this to Northern Ireland – what could be more important for its Assembly than being able to contribute to decisions about how the border will operate? However, although the draft UK-EU agreement notes that the UK has committed itself to continuing to fund schemes for promoting inter-regional co-operation in Ireland, and in Europe as a whole, it makes no mention of any possible role for the Assembly.

In addition, although the Assembly has been suspended for most of the period of Brexit negotiations, the UK Government has not prioritised the re-established of a functioning Northern Ireland legislature as a necessary or desirable element of a strategy for resolving the Irish dimension of EU negotiations. While leaders of political parties and other organisations in Northern Ireland have held separate meetings with UK and EU representatives, there has been no democratically elected forum in Northern Ireland within which different shades of opinion, and potential solutions, could be debated and developed. From a Scottish perspective, this seems incredibly short-sighted. To be effective in the long-term, any new arrangements around cross-border movement and trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland need to be grounded in political consensus and public understanding.

A third Scottish perspective on the relationship between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and proposed backstop, arises from an appreciation that complex problems can only be addressed through dialogue and negotiation based on solidarity and trust. Even though in practice it does not always work as intended, the basic fundamental structure of the Scottish Parliamentary system is based on co-operation and collaboration rather than an adversarial model. The majority of people in Scotland see themselves as Europeans, embrace our European history, and wish to be an active part of the EU and other international organisations. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which had a crucial transformational impact on the lives of people in Ireland, came about as a result of complex negotiations that involved various stakeholder groups in the UK and Ireland, along with involvement of political leaders from the USA and Europe.

By contrast, the UK side of the Brexit negotiations have been characterised by an unwillingness to engage meaningfully with any stakeholders at all. The only group that appears to have the ear of the UK government is the DUP, a political party that was historically highly resistant to the peace process. It is also a matter of concern that absence of dialogue, even within its own membership, is similarly apparent in the Brexit alternative offered by the Labour opposition. One of the most worrying aspects of Brexit is that the EU policies around freedom of trade and movement have created an environment in which a gradual healing and softening of previously hostile inter-group relationships in Ireland has been able to take place. Left to its own devices, it seems unlikely that anyone in the current Westminster political establishment has the courage, imagination or determination to keep this process moving in a positive direction.

Whether the UK leaves the EU or not, open and honest conversations about the relationship between the UK and Ireland need to take place. The “backstop” is a diversion, a way of avoiding talking about what is really important. Whether Scotland is part of the UK or not, our people and political leadership are in a position to offer a distinctive perspective on these issues. There is also much to be gained, for Scotland as a whole, by taking the initiative in broaching these matters. Let us not forget that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is not at all similar, as famously suggested by Boris Johnson, to the border between Camden and Islington. The UK-Ireland border is a living reminder of many centuries of violent oppression and cruelty, and the fact that it is now peaceful and comprises no more than a set of road signs is a tribute the human capacity to survive and forgive. We can learn a lot about ourselves by giving these matters due attention.

John McLeod