There’s been a lot of discussion (to put it mildly) about the backstop in regards to Brexit. Effectively the TL;DR is that it’s designed to prevent the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, in the absence of some more organized solution. As someone born and raised in Northern Ireland I’m in favour of that. My parents live in Newry, which is just north of the border on the main Belfast/Dublin road. I remember the border checkpoint.
The backstop causes problems because it requires the United Kingdom to keep in sync with the EU in many respects, to retain the customs union and allow the free movement of goods across the border in a friction-free manner. Originally there was a suggestion that this union could apply solely to Northern Ireland, with some sort of checks made on the air/sea border between NI and the rest of the UK. The DUP rejected any suggestion of a border in the Irish Sea, and as the party propping up the Tories they have some sway in this whole thing. That’s unfortunate, as I think that this sort of special status for Northern Ireland could make it a very attractive place to do business, with good access to both the rest of the UK and the EU. The DUP claim to be rejecting anything that might make Northern Ireland separate from the UK. What they fail to acknowledge is the multitude of ways in which NI is separate, some of them their doing.
Let’s start with some legal examples. Belfast was the first place to have generally available civil partnerships for gay couples (there was an earlier exceptional ceremony in Brighton for a terminally ill man). Today Northern Ireland is the only place not to allow same sex marriage - England and Wales introduced the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 and Scotland introduced the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014. The DUP have repeatedly used the Petition of Concern to block such legislation in Northern Ireland, and stated they will continue to do so.
The other headline difference is the fact that the Abortion Act 1967 does not apply in Northern Ireland, which instead falls back to the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 and the older Offences Against the Person Act 1861, only allowing abortion in cases where it is to preserve the life of the mother.
Less of a headline difference is the fact it’s illegal to give a child under 16 alcohol in Northern Ireland (Children and Young Persons Act (Northern Ireland) 1968 s.25), unless it’s on the order of a doctor. Everywhere else it’s illegal for under 5s (Children and Young Persons Act 1933 s.5), but ok for older children in private premises. It’s wise to try to prevent underage drinking, but I’d have thought enabling it legally in the home isn’t the risk factor we should be worried about here. NI also has more restrictive off-license alcohol licensing, leading to weird cordoned off areas in supermarkets where they keep the alcohol and most small shops not stocking it at all.
All of these legal differences are reconcilable with the DUP’s status as a conservative Christian right party. However they all serve to separate Northern Ireland more from the rest of the UK, making it look like a parochial backwater, and that’s harder to reconcile with the DUP’s statement that they want to avoid that. Equally there are other pieces of legislation that have variations in the Northern Ireland implementation (and the fact there’s even a separate Act or Order for NI for things predating devolution is sometimes an oddity).
For example, The Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, Article 140 specifies that an employee needs 1 year continuous employment to be able to make an unfair dismissal claim, while the Employment Rights Act 1996, s.108 requires 2 years before such a claim can be made in the rest of the UK. Good for workers in NI, but not a logical difference to have.
We can’t even claim these differences all pre-date the Good Friday Agreement Stormont Assembly. In 2014 the DUP were quite happy to try and diverge NI’s tax regime from the rest of the UK by aiming for a corporation tax reduction that was, irony of ironies, designed to bring NI into line with the rest of Ireland in an attempt to get some of the inward investment pie.
It’s also worth noting that land law is significantly different between NI and England & Wales (to the extent that while doing my law degree I was taught them as 2 parallel strands rather than the lecturers simply pointing out the divergences along the way). Scotland is even more different, so that’s perhaps not as useful an example of variation, but it does usefully lead into a discussion about differences in the provision of government services. Searching the Land Registry for Northern Ireland is in-person physical act. Doing so for England and Wales with the HM Land Registry is possible online.
This can be seen again in the area of driving licences, something you’d expect a unified UK approach for. The rest of the UK has abolished the paper counterpart for driving licences. Not Northern Ireland. If you hold an NI licence and want to hire a car don’t forget to bring your paper part! (Yes, this has bitten me once.) Northern Ireland was also the first part of the UK to have a photograph as part of the driving licence (probably because we were the only part of the UK being stopped at army checkpoints and asked for ID).
On the subject of cars, the MOT in Northern Ireland is performed in government run test centres. Elsewhere in the UK MOT’s are handled by approved test centres - usually a garage. There are advantages to both (primarily a trade off between government impartiality and the convenience of being able to drop your car off for a test with someone who will fix the failures), but there’s no logical reason for the difference across the country.
The executive has also used the sea border with the rest of the UK to its advantage, for example during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, when additional controls were put in place at ports and airports in Northern Ireland to try and prevent the spread of the disease to NI farming stock. (I remember the disinfectant mats being in place at Belfast International Airport during this period.)
We have other differences too. 4 Northern Irish banks issue their own bank notes (though First Trust are stopping) - they’re worth exactly the same as Bank of England notes (being valid pounds sterling), but good luck freely spending them in the rest of the UK! And for a long time we didn’t even have representation from the big UK banks here (which made having an NI bank account while being at university in England problematic at times).
These geographical and legal differences naturally extend into the private sector. It’s not just the banks who lack representation here, high street shops are affected too. I keep getting Ocado vouchers included in other orders but they’re no use to me because Waitrose aren’t present here. McDonalds didn’t arrive until the early 90s. There are plenty of other examples.
I’m sure some of this is due to the existence of a large body of water between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK making delivery more complex. It’s not uncommon for suppliers to charge more or completely refuse to deliver to NI. Even when they do there are frequently restrictions (see Amazon’s for an example). Good luck getting a replacement phone or laptop battery shipped from a reputable supplier these days!
Car insurance has also historically been higher in Northern Ireland. A paper produced by the Northern Ireland Assembly, ‘Update: Comparative Car and Home Insurance Costs in NI’ (NIAR 508-10) discussed potential reasons for this, concluding that the higher rate of accidents and associated legal system differences resulting in higher compensation and legal fees were likely causes. I guess that explains some of the terrifying road safety ads shown on TV here over the years.
What’s my point with all of this? Largely that I feel it’s foolish to try and pretend Northern Ireland doesn’t have differences with the rest of the UK, and deciding that the existence of some additional checks on movement across the Irish Sea is the red line seems to be shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. If the DUP had shown any inclination to rectify the other arbitrary differences that exist here I’d have more sympathy, but the fact they persist in maintaining some of them just strikes me as hypocrisy.