The Government has ruled out introducing Irish border checkpoints after the UK leaves the European Union.
Unionists have welcomed Brexit Secretary David Davis’s proposal for the UK to adopt technology to cover the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
But Sinn Fein MLA John O’Dowd said Mr Davis’ attempt to reassure people that there would be no ‘hard’ border in Ireland was “laughable”.
It came two days after Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson made a speech to the European Parliament in which she said Prime Minister Theresa May could stick the Irish border “where the sun don’t shine”.
Mr Davis yesterday gave evidence to his Westminster scrutiny committee about the future of the UK’s only land frontier with an EU state.
He said: “It is not going to be easy, it is going to cost us money, a lot of work on technology, to put border controls in but without having border posts — but that is what we intend to do.”
Mr O’Dowd poured scorn on Mr Davis’ plan.
“He claims there will be a digital border and that his government will develop the technology to manage it. But given his government’s track record of trying and failing to develop bespoke computer systems his comments will not reassure anyone,” he said.
And his comments are all the more ridiculous because it won’t be up to Britain to decide what any EU border will look like.
“That decision will be taken by the 27 member states.”
Mr O’Dowd added there was a “genuine fear” across Ireland over a hard border and called for a special designated status for Northern Ireland in the EU.
However, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the proposals and accused Sinn Fein of acting like “doom and gloom merchants”.
“It is rather ironic that it’s Sinn Fein who are talking up the prospects of a hard border and the UK government and unionists talking about a soft border,” he said.
“I think Sinn Fein need to explain themselves here why they’re not advocating for a soft border instead of running around like doom and gloom merchants and talking up the idea of a hard border.”
He continued: “Are we going back to the old days of Sinn Fein creating straw men so that they can then pretend to be the champions of nationalism to knock them down?”
Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott said he too welcomed the idea of a digital border, insisting any issues could be overcome.
“There always will be worries and anxiety about the border till they see it in operation, no matter people say at the moment, but I don’t think any of them are insurmountable,” he said.
Mr Elliott also urged the Irish government to use its influence in Europe to ensure flexibility on the border issue.
Businesses north and south are unanimously opposed to a hard border following Brexit, with long queues for paperwork checks envisaged akin to the 1980s during the Troubles.
Tour operators, hoteliers, business leaders and farmers are among those concerned about the implications if no special deal is struck between the UK and the Republic.
Mr Davis insisted the two governments and the European Commission understood the value or reaching an agreement.
He added: “We are not going to do anything which jeopardises the peace process.”
The Brexit Secretary noted excise duty differences on goods moving between north and south were already dealt with in a subtle fashion.
He said the same system for sending goods between Belfast and Dublin could also control trade between the UK and a city like Rotterdam in Holland.
Freedom of movement between the UK and Ireland is currently covered by the UK’s 1949 Ireland Act, which sees Irish citizens living in the UK treated as “non-foreign.”
Mr Davis said this may be reviewed post-Brexit but added: “What we will aim to do is pretty much identical to the 1949 Act, which gives effectively citizenship rights to the citizens of each country.”
Earlier, the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation warned MPs that around 1,000 hospitality workers who cross the Irish border for work every day could be affected by Brexit. Chief executive Janice Gault said uncertainty around the future is the biggest factor facing the industry and reimposing controls would send out a retrograde message.