Plans to clamp drivers from the Republic who fail to pay parking fines issued in Northern Ireland could drive shoppers away from border towns, it has been claimed.
The stark warning comes after the Department for Regional Development revealed it was ready to introduce clamping in a bid to stop cross-border motorists escaping punishment.
Around one in four tickets issued to cars registered in the Republic remains unpaid – equivalent to almost £650,000 in unrecovered debt.
As things stand, southern drivers do not face any punishment if they ignore a fine issued in Northern Ireland.
However, Roads Minister Danny Kennedy is to write to his counterpart in the Irish government outlining new plans to recover parking debt.
Simon Richardson from DRD warned cross-border drivers that clocking up a collection of unpaid fines could soon have serious consequences.
One key proposal is clamping drivers with three or more unpaid parking tickets in Northern Ireland.
Effectively it would extend the three-strike rule, which is currently applicable to drivers resident north of the border, to those with addresses in the Republic.
However, Newry mayor John McArdle warned that the plans could have a devastating impact on border towns.
“I understand the problems with illegal parking but this would be a disaster,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“We are in the midst of a massive recession, shops are closing down left, right and centre, and if word gets out that your car could be clamped if you go to Newry then they won’t come here, simple as that.”
Mr Richardson, who is head of parking services at DRD, said clamping could be introduced within months, but would require agreement and a reciprocal approach from parking authorities in the Republic.
“We certainly have proposals on how we want to take this forward ... certainly [clamping] is one of the options that is available to us,” he told the BBC.
“That will form part of the Minister’s communication with his counterpart so that is certainly high on the list of action that we could take.”
A crackdown on drivers who park illegally was launched three years ago.
Mr Richardson said the number of southern drivers who had paid up after receiving parking fines had increased by over 50% in that period.
Authorities in the Republic have also benefited from the partnership arrangement, he added, with increased compliance by northern drivers with parking fines and toll road charges when they cross the border.
“This sharing of information has moved the whole process forward and allowed us to improve the parking situation in all our towns, particularly our border towns,” he added.
Earlier this year it emerged the Republic’s National Roads Authority had written off more than €3.3m in unpaid M50 tolls last year – around a quarter of which were from cars registered in Northern Ireland.
In March 2010 authorities on both sides of the border agreed to share vehicle registration details to ensure drivers could be pursued for unpaid parking fines.
Since then 28,932 tickets have been issued to cars registered in the Republic of Ireland, 6,795 of which remain unpaid, equating to £646,692 in unrecovered debt.
The Department for Regional Development said the number of Republic-based motorists paying parking fines has risen by 50%.