Prime Minister Boris Johnson was able to secure a trade deal with the EU, but the UK came very close to leaving on no deal terms after years of arduous talks. One of the key issues during the Brexit debate was the future of Northern Ireland, and how its land border with the EU would be managed. Some feared that Brexit could lead to the Good Friday Agreement being undermined – and therefore threaten peace on the border. The accord ended most of the violence of the Troubles, a political conflict in Northern Ireland that had ensued since the late 1960s, and was also a major development in the Northern Ireland peace process of the 1990s.
During withdrawal negotiations, former Prime Minister Theresa May struggled to find a solution that would enable her deal to pass through the House of Commons.
When Boris Johnson won the Conservative Party leadership race in the Summer of 2019, former Tory MP Michael Portillo made a surprising prediction.
He suggested the incoming Prime Minister would create a “Northern Ireland only-backstop”, and hold a referendum in the country in order to gain voters’ consent.
Mr Portillo said in June 2019: “Theresa May was offered a backstop that applied only to Northern Ireland, and she got worried about that because she thought that separated Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.
“She insisted on a backstop that involved the whole of the United Kingdom. That then set the Brexiteers against her, because they said now we’re locked into a permanent Customs Union.
“The way out of this is to go back to the Northern Ireland-only backstop and to obtain the consent of the Northern Ireland people, I would say through a referendum in Northern Ireland.
“They will give it, I think, because they don’t want to go back to a border, and they want to have free trade with the Republic.”
The plan Mr Johnson opted for was markedly similar to Mr Portillo’s solution, as Northern Ireland will remain in the EU’s single market for goods and will also apply the bloc’s customs rules in order to preserve trade and an open border with Ireland.
This means goods arriving from Great Britain will be checked and controlled at Northern Ireland’s ports.
But goods going into the Republic of Ireland and the wider EU will face no new checks or controls.
This arrangement would still have applied even if a wider trade deal had not been agreed.
Mrs May was unable to get her version of the deal through Parliament, but this didn’t stop her from boasting “my deal was better” in a Commons debate on New Year’s Eve.
She said she was “disappointed” in the deal Mr Johnson has reached on services and his failure to achieve the “groundbreaking” settlement for the financial sector which she had promised.
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Mrs May also addressed Labour leader Keir Starmer saying: “I welcome this deal and I will be supporting it today and I welcome the fact that the official opposition will be supporting this deal.
“But I did listen with some incredulity to what the leader of the Opposition said.
“He said he wanted a better deal. He had the opportunity in early 2019, when there was the opportunity of a better deal on the table, and he voted against it.”