No physical changes to Irish border arrangements proposed after Brexit

Michelle O'Neill
Michelle O'Neill

The Government will argue against any new technological or physical monitoring on the Irish border in Brexit talks over the future of its only land frontier with the EU.

Confounding speculation that the UK would advocate CCTV cameras or number plate recognition systems as part of its vision for a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, a new Whitehall position paper has effectively recommended no change to the current arrangements.

It has also proposed a future customs arrangement which would see 80% of businesses on the island 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 paper proposes 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 has also acknowledged that the EU will have to sign up to its vision of a post-Brexit border and there has already been scepticism in Brussels at the viability of London's wider post-Brexit customs proposals.

Ahead of the publication of the document, Prime Minister Theresa May stated her commitment to a seamless Irish border.

"There should be no physical border infrastructure of any kind on either side of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland," she said.

"I want people to be absolutely clear: the UK does not want to see border posts for any purpose."

Mrs May also moved to reassure nationalists living in Northern Ireland that Brexit will not see the UK turn its back on its "unique and special relationship" with Ireland.

She insisted rights enshrined under the Good Friday peace accord, such as the right to claim Irish citizenship, would be protected after the exit from the European Union.

The paper reaffirms the Government's stated commitment to maintain the almost century-old Common Travel Area (CTA), which allows for free movement of UK and Irish citizens around the island.

Secretary of State for Exiting the EU David Davis said: "The UK and Ireland have been clear all along that we need to prioritise protecting the Belfast Agreement in these negotiations, and ensure the land border is as seamless as possible for people and businesses.

"The proposals we outline in this paper do exactly that, and we're looking forward to seeing the EU's position paper on the Northern Ireland border.

"In committing to keep the Common Travel Area, which has existed for nearly a century, we're making sure UK and Irish citizens will continue to be able to travel, live, work and study across both countries."

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.

"I believe it is possible to find a solution that works for the UK, for Ireland and for the EU - and, specifically, for Northern Ireland - and am determined to work to achieve that.

"It is clear that there are many areas where the UK, Ireland and the rest of the EU have shared objectives. We have a lot to build on but need to work together intensively over the coming months."

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.

"I welcome the commitment to a seamless border and movement of goods between Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is also welcome news that the Government will not countenance any new border in the Irish Sea."

Mrs May was later asked whether the Conservative Party's parliamentary deal with the pro-Brexit DUP would undermine her ability to work in the best interests of everyone in Northern Ireland - a region that voted 56% to Remain.

"We will absolutely work for all sides in Northern Ireland, we are absolutely committed to the Belfast Agreement and to ensuring that the decisions we take are decisions for every community across Northern Ireland," she told reporters in Portsmouth.

"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."

She added: "We don't want to see a border between parts of the United Kingdom, what we want to see is an arrangement in relation to customs and borders with the European Union that can enable us to see no return to the hard borders of the past in Northern Ireland, to enable that flow of goods and people between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

"That is not just in the interests of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, it is in the interests I think of the Republic of Ireland and the European Union too."

Sinn Fein's Stormont leader, Michelle O'Neill, said the proposals were "big on aspiration but light on clarity".

"I am not comforted, I don't believe the wider public out there will be comforted from what they read today because, whilst the British Government might say they don't want to see any kind of hard border or technology put in place, it will not be within their gift to deliver that; it will be the other European member states, who clearly think and believe we need to see customs controls," she said.

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. "They are very interested in the needs of the British people but not of the needs of the people here who voted to remain within the European Union.

"I think we could be forgiven for thinking that the British Government in this latest document are using us and our unique circumstances here to try to put pressure on the European Union."

Mrs O'Neill reiterated her demand for Northern Ireland to retain special designated EU status post-Brexit and called on the Irish Government to "defend the rights" of Remain voters north of the border.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the paper left "a lot of questions unanswered".

He added: "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.

"What we've committed to is tariff free trade to the European market and a close economic relationship, and at this stage of negotiations we can't rule anything in or out.

"We are quite clear there must be no hard border - there never has been a hard, physical border but there have been controls and no one wants to see a return to that, that will just damage the peace process."