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UK House of Commons Votes for Pursuit of Alternative to Irish Backstop

30 January 2019

The UK House of Commons has passed an amendment to its Brexit programme tabled by Graham Brady MP which seeks to circumvent the agreed Irish backstop which has inflamed Conservative backbenchers. The amendment, which was passed on a 317 to 301 margin, calls for “the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border, supports leaving the European Union with a deal and would therefore support the Withdrawal Agreement subject to this change"

Following the vote, Theresa May was upbeat on the potential for an alternative to the backstop to be found. She stated there are several potential backstop alternatives which she wished to put forward to the EU27. These include a "trusted trader" scheme to avoid physical checks on goods passing over the border, "mutual recognition" of rules with the EU and "technological" solutions to the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The reaction to the vote from the EU27 was cold, and the vote was viewed as an attempt to resile from an agreed position. A phone call between Mrs May and European Council President Donald Tusk was described as “open and frank”, with Mr Tusk reiterating the negotiations could not re-open on the Withdrawal Agreement. Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier said the Irish backstop is "part and parcel" of agreement and will not be renegotiated.

The sceptical reaction was mirrored in Ireland. Following a phone call with Mrs May, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the vote had "reinforced the need for a backstop which is legally robust and workable in practice". Tánaiste Simon Coveney was more stark in his reaction, stating that any politician who allowed the "borders and divisions of the past" to return would be "judged harshly in history". He described the Brady amendment as “wishful thinking” and likened the approach to “[…] saying give me what I want or I’m jumping out the window”. “We owe it to the people of Ireland, north and south. We cannot approach this negotiation on the basis of threats”.

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