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Boris Johnson plans two Brexit borders for Northern Ireland - reports

Prime Minister Boris Johnson enters the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester (Peter Byrne/PA).
Prime Minister Boris Johnson enters the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester (Peter Byrne/PA).
Andrew Madden

By Andrew Madden

The Prime Minister is to set out a new Brexit plan involving "two borders" which will see Northern Ireland follow some EU rules until 2025, it has been reported.

Boris Johnson's proposals would put a regulatory border down the Irish Sea and customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic, The Telegraph reports.

The plans are expected to receive a cold response from Brussels, coming just a day after the PM dismissed suggestions he was prepared to set up checks on either side of the border.

Under the new scheme, Northern Ireland would leave the customs union with the rest of the UK, but stay in large parts of the single market until 2025, after which Stormont can decide whether to stick to the arrangements or adopt British trading rules.

The Irish border (PA Graphics)
The Irish border (PA Graphics)

This will likely be fiercely opposed by nationalist parties, as it could effectively give the DUP a veto on the issue.

DUP leader Arlene Foster called Boris Johnson a "good friend" and a "fabulous friend to the union", but declined to say whether she had seen the PM's proposals for altering the backstop.

"What we are doing with his Prime Minister is working very closely with him and we will continue to work closely with him over the next couple of hours and days, and I hope we do get a deal that is acceptable to the European Union and one that is good for the whole of the United Kingdom," she told the BBC.

"What people need to remember is after the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop came out, what was happening was Northern Ireland was going to be in a different customs union, we were going to be in separate regulations without any democratic say.

"I think it is important that we now try and get a deal that is good for Northern Ireland as well as the rest of the UK.

"The backstop has always been identified as the huge stumbling block. Let's fix it and let's get a deal.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the proposed system would "strangle" the Northern Ireland economy and urged Westminster parties to join together to remove Boris Johnson from office and secure a Brext extension.

“It is clear that (Boris Johnson) now sees himself as the Brexit Godfather, making an offer that the EU can only refuse. The British Government is accelerating toward a no-deal exit on 31st October and it must be stopped," he said.

“I have written to the Leaders of the Labour Party, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats at Westminster today asking them to take part in an unprecedented act of political selflessness to stop this chaos and protect the fragile interests of Northern Ireland.

"They must come together, pass a motion of no confidence in Johnson and unite behind a common candidate as a temporary measure to extend the Article 50 period."

Alliance leader Naomi Long described the PM's offer to the EU as an "act of bad faith" that is not an alternative to the backstop.

"I don't believe these are genuine proposals. I don't think they are designed to find a solution. I think they are designed to tick the box of 'having offered a solution'," she said.

"On that basis Boris Johnson will say 'oh well, it's been rejected' - knowing full well that what he took to the table is not acceptable to people in Northern Ireland."

Former Northern Ireland secretary Lord Hain suggested that the Brexit plan could break the law and "sabotage" the Good Friday Agreement.

The Labour peer said: "By insisting on extra customs checks and different trading relationships across the Irish border the Government is proposing to break the law again by contravening Section 10 (2) (b) of the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 which specifically bans 'border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after exit day which feature physical infrastructure, including border posts, or checks and controls, that did not exist before exit day'.

"This will also sabotage the Good Friday Peace Agreement."

Boris Johnson is expected to reveal the plans during his speech at the Conservative Party Conference on Wednesday afternoon.

The proposals would see Northern Ireland following EU single market rules for agricultural and industrial goods and, as the rest of the UK will have its own trade policy, there will have to be customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

As mooted in the proposals dismissed by Boris Johnson on Tuesday, these checks would take place a some distance away from the actual frontier.

While he rejected the suggestion of erecting borders to solve the Brexit dilemma, Mr Johnson did admit that customs checks were inevitable.

“If the EU is going to insist on customs checks as we come out, then we will have to accept that reality,” he told the BBC.

“There will have to be a system, for customs checks away from the border. Now, we think those checks can be absolutely minimal and non-intrusive and won't involve new infrastructure."

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff, said the plans are not a suitable replacement for the backstop.

"As the Irish Government pointed out, the point of the backstop is to provide a guarantee, it is not a blueprint of what we should do for Northern Ireland - it is a way of avoiding having a hard border," he said.

"If you put a time limit on the backstop, it is no longer a backstop and that is the problem."

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith said the Government had to be "very careful about upsetting" the "hard-won stability" anywhere along the Irish land border with its fresh backstop proposals.

"I think there are many things we will have to look at in the future relationship but I think the priority now is to get a deal which changes the Withdrawal Agreement but that makes sure we protect trade flows and the hard-won stability at the Irish border," Mr Smith told the BBC.

"At the border, five miles from the border, 10 miles from the border - the border is a broad area and we have to be very careful about upsetting it."

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