Brexit: Why is the Irish border 'backstop' such a big deal?

Some worry that a hard border may return

By MATT WELLS AND PETER WILKINSON, CNN
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Traffic moves by a defaced 'Welcome to Northern Ireland' sign on the Irish border on Oct. 9, 2018, in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Talks on the Irish border are thought to be at a crucial stage as the EU and the UK attempt to resolve their…

(CNN) - One of the big fears in the Brexit debate is that Britain's departure from the EU will mean the reintroduction of border posts on the frontier between Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.

Border infrastructure was often targeted by Irish nationalist paramilitaries during the "Troubles" -- the 40-year sectarian conflict in which more than 3,500 people died.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal avoids the reintroduction of a so-called "hard" Irish border, because of the built-in transition period that keeps the UK in a customs union with the EU.

The problems come if there's no agreement on what to do after the transition period ends in 2020. Enter the Irish "backstop," an insurance policy designed to avoid a hard border if no other solution to police the border are found by that time.

This has infuriated hard-line Brexiteers, worried the UK will never "properly" leave the bloc. They want to be free of the customs union, in order to forge international trade deals that would require the UK to be free of EU regulations on issues like agriculture, fisheries, food standards and the environment.

The Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 MPs prop up May's minority government in London, also demands a clean break with the EU, and oppose any move to give Northern Ireland different status from mainland Britain.

The crucial sticking point is that the Brexit deal, as it stands, states that neither side can leave the backstop unilaterally. Brexiteers hate the idea that the EU would hold a power of veto over the UK -- and the backstop may never end.

But others, including the Irish government, argue that the backstop would be meaningless if Britain could tear it up at will. But there is little sign that EU leaders will make any concessions to May on the deal substantial enough to win over her critics at home.

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