How the Irish border backstop became Brexit’s defining issue

By Alex Barker in Brussels and Arthur Beesley in Dublin

No one quite remembers who coined the term that could sink the Brexit talks. In public at least it was Leo Varadkar, the Irish premier, who first mentioned a “backstop” plan for the Northern Ireland border “if all else failed”. The old cricket expression stuck, capturing in a word the biggest diplomatic gamble on Brexit since Britain’s referendum.


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Mr Varadkar was addressing the Dáil in December 2017 after UK politics had gone, in his words, “somewhat pear shaped”. He told the Irish parliament that he wanted a backstop plan to guarantee no hard border would return to the island of Ireland, whatever happens to UK-EU relations after Brexit. But even in such a vague form, the idea had brought Brexit talks, and Theresa May’s minority government in Westminster, to the brink of collapse.