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Brexit: Confusion reigns as Boris Johnson denies plans for Irish border checks

The Old Belfast Road in Carrickcarnon on the northern side of the Irish border (Niall Carson/PA)
The Old Belfast Road in Carrickcarnon on the northern side of the Irish border (Niall Carson/PA)

There has been widespread confusion about reported UK proposals to install a border "buffer zone" made up of customs posts as an alternative to the backstop.

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According to RTE, the plans, sent by the Government to the European Commission, say "customs clearing sites" would be set up on either side of the border, five to ten miles away from the actual frontier.

Since the news of the proposals emerged, they have been slammed as simply another form of a hard border, which the backstop was designed to prevent.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has denied the reports, stating it was "absolutely not" true that he wanted to simply move border checks away from the physical border.

"There are very good reasons why that would not be a good idea... both for practical reasons and reasons of sentiment that we totally understand," he said.

He did say, however, that it is a "reality" that some checks would be needed to create a "single customs territory" for the UK once it leaves the EU.

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith has also denied the Government are considering such a move.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

"I don't know where these papers have come from that were reported on yesterday, I've not seen them, I don't know who's written them, but I'm clear that we can't have customs facilities in the places mentioned in the reports," he said.

"And I'm clear that the Prime Minister is fully committed to the Good Friday Agreement."

Mr Smith told BBC Radio Ulster: "Five or 10 miles from the border is still an issue and I am clear on that, and the Government is clear that the Good Friday Agreement needs to be respected."

It has been reported that the plans a contained in one of four "non-papers" submitted by UK negotiators during recent Brexit discussions, however they have not been shared with individual member states.

They would include goods from the northern "clearance site" to the southern site being monitored through mobile phone data of tracking devices on vehicles.

Shadow secretary of state for Brexit, Keir Starmer tweeted: "If Boris Johnson had spent any time listening to businesses and communities in Northern Ireland, he would know that these proposals are utterly unworkable."

Seamus Leheny of the Freight Transport Association said the proposals would not work and go against "every single piece of feedback and advice that we in the Northern Ireland business community have given the government."

"It's basically a smugglers' charter. If there's no enforcement at the precise border then it makes it very easy for smugglers," he said.

An Irish government spokesman said a credible alternative to the backstop had yet to be proposed by the UK.

"The EU task force has indicated that any non-papers it has received from the UK to date fall well short of the agreed aims and objectives of the backstop," he said.

"The UKs non-papers were given to the task force on the strict understanding they would not be shared with anyone.

"The task force has said it has received no credible proposals from the British."

Northern Ireland's non-unionist parties have also been highly critical of the proposals, with Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald describing them as a "vexatious and almost menacing" suggestion.

"What we need on this island, north and south, is to ensure there is no hard border, that our all-island economy is protected and that the Good Friday Agreement is protected," she added.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said any physical checks, regardless of their distance from the border, would create "unacceptable" economic and security challenges.

“People in the North didn’t vote for this. We voted to maintain seamless travel, trade and life across this island," he said.

"Exporting businesses, companies with integrated cross-border supply chains and frontier workers have been clear for three years that infrastructure of this nature will damage our economy with no conceivable benefit.

"That is the price of this twisted ideology and we refuse to pay it."

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