Brexit: UK ministers propose '˜unmonitored' Irish border post
The UK Government has set out its vision of a free-flowing and unmonitored Irish border post-Brexit, with the majority of local businesses avoiding customs tariffs.
The proposals outlined in a Whitehall position paper add some detail to Prime Minister Theresa May’s oft-repeated pledge to avoid a hardening of the border.
While the return of Troubles-era check points along the UK’s only land border with the EU has long been considered a non-runner by the Government, there was an expectation it would seek to use technology to monitor major crossings along the 300-mile frontier.
But that was not the stance adopted in Wednesday’s position paper. Confounding expectations, it instead stated a desire to avoid any physical infrastructure whatsoever, with officials confirming that meant no CCTV cameras or number plate recognition systems.
Mrs May said: “As we look forward to Brexit, of course, we do want to ensure that we don’t see a return to the borders of the past, we don’t see a return to a hard border, and that we are able to ensure that the crucial flow of goods and people between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is able to continue in the future.”
The plan will only become reality if the UK can convince EU negotiators it is feasible and in the interests of the 27 remaining member states.
Resolving the challenges around the Irish border is one of three main ‘phase one’ issues in the Brexit negotiations, along with citizens rights and the financial exit settlement.
The EU 27 will decide in a crunch Brussels summit in October if sufficient progress has been made on all three to widen negotiations to issues such as future trading relations.
In respect of those relations, the document proposes a customs arrangement that would see 80 per cent of businesses on the island of Ireland entirely exempt from any new tariffs post-Brexit.
The exemption would apply to small and medium-sized enterprises involved in localised cross-border trade.
In respect of larger companies engaged in international trade, the Government suggests they could adhere to any new customs regime by completing retrospective declarations either online or at their premises.
Officials concede that the proposals could be open to fraud - with Great Britain or continental European-based companies using Irish business counterparts to avoid tariffs - but they believe those risks can be managed effectively.
The Government paper again dismissed any suggestion a customs border could be shifted to the Irish Sea, with checks and tariffs only in operation at entry and exit points between the island of Ireland and Great Britain.
If the EU signed off the UK’s ultimate customs objective - a partnership deal with the UK mirroring Europe’s tariff system, as set out in a separate position paper on Tuesday - then no Irish companies would be subject to new checks as a consequence of Brexit.
The paper also reaffirms the Government’s stated commitment to maintain the almost century-old Common Travel Area (CTA), which allows UK and Irish citizens to travel, work, study, vote and claim benefits in both jurisdictions.
In addition, it advocates the retention of rights enshrined under the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, such as the right of nationalists living in Northern Ireland to claim Irish, and consequently EU, citizenship.
The Government has also committed to explore ways to maintain funding for peace-building initiatives in Northern Ireland that is currently provided by the EU - to the tune of two billion euro since 1995.
Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire said: “The paper provides flexible and imaginative ideas and demonstrates our desire to find a practical solution that recognises the unique economic, social and cultural context of the land border with Ireland, without creating any new obstacles to trade within the UK.”
There was a mixed reaction to the Government’s proposals.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said the paper was “timely and helpful”.
He welcomed elements of it but said “significant questions” still remain.
Mr Coveney warned that delivering on the “aspirations” within the customs and border position papers would be difficult.
“There are still significant questions in terms of how we are going to manage and remain as close as possible to the status quo on the island of Ireland in terms of the free movement of goods and services, and ensure we maintain an invisible border on the island of Ireland as you move north and south seamlessly as you do today - that is the manifestation and evidence of a successful peace process,” he said.
The senior Dublin government minister also made clear Ireland would be robustly pressing for an outcome that suited its citizens.
“From that point of view we won’t be picking fights for the sake of it but we will be firm and clear in terms of what we regard is important and essential for Ireland to be able to support a future deal,” he added.
Democratic Unionist leader and former Stormont first minister Arlene Foster described the paper as a “constructive step”.
“It is clear the Government has listened to voices in Belfast, Dublin, Brussels and London about how the United Kingdom’s only EU land border could be managed after we exit the EU,” she said.
Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said the proposals were “big on aspiration but light on clarity”.
Mrs O’Neill claimed the UK Government had only a “fleeting concern” on how Brexit could affect Northern Ireland and suggested it was using the region to gain leverage in the wider negotiations with Brussels.
“What the British Government are doing is treating us as collateral damage,” she said.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for further detail.
“Obviously in leaving the European Union it’s going to be a problem and no-one wants a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, we certainly don’t and I hope there can now be negotiations to make sure there is a continuation of free movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic,” he said.