UK's 'blueprint' for border after Brexit splits opinion down familiar party lines
The Government's post-Brexit border proposals have been warmly welcomed by unionists - but dismissed by nationalists and other critics as unrealistic and lacking detail.
In a position paper published yesterday, London rejected the idea of any physical infrastructure such as customs posts and stressed that an "unprecedented solution" for the Irish border must be found.
Contrary to expectations, the Government didn't recommend number plate recognition technology or CCTV cameras at what will be the UK's only land frontier with the EU.
Instead it set out proposals for a free-flowing and unmonitored Irish border with the majority of local businesses avoiding customs tariffs.
DUP leader Arlene Foster described the paper as a "constructive step". She welcomed "the commitment to a seamless border and movement of goods" between the two jurisdictions.
She said: "It is clear the Government has listened to voices in Belfast, Dublin, Brussels and London about how the UK's only EU land border could be managed after we exit the EU.
"It is welcome news that the Government will not countenance any new border in the Irish Sea.
"The DUP will not be deflected by those who want to refight old battles - we will focus on getting the best deal for Northern Ireland."
However, Sinn Fein claimed the Brexit proposals weren't "compatible with the Good Friday Agreement, the economic interests of Ireland north and south or the democratically expressed wishes of the people".
The party's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill described the document as "big on rhetoric but thin on actual commitments" with the customs union proposals "dismissed within hours as deluded, untested and unrealistic".
"The Tory proposals fail to manage or minimise the impact of Brexit on the north. They are prepared to set aside their obligations under the Good Friday Agreement and to use our agreements, economy and rights as a bargaining chip with the EU," she said.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described London's document as "confused and conflicting".
He added: "There is an easier answer to the Irish border question - the British Government could give up its hard Brexit position and negotiate to remain a member of the European customs union."
Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry claimed the Government was "in denial" over the border.
"Everyone may wish to avoid a hard border, but any difference in the customs and tariff regimes between the UK and the EU would require both a heavy administrative burden and some form of physical checks. Even light touch borders such as between Norway and Sweden have a physical frontier," he said.
But UUP MEP Jim Nicholson welcomed the proposals and said it was now up to the EU27, including the Republic, to respond constructively.
"The tone of the Republic of Ireland Government's language has become less co-operative in recent months," he said.
"This is not the time for chest-beating and grandstanding. If they are serious about minimising disruption when the UK exits the European Union, then they have a responsibility to help identify workable solutions."
Dublin fears that some of the UK's proposals for cross-border trade are "totally unworkable".
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney welcomed the UK paper but warned that it left "significant questions" unanswered.
He also raised concerns that some of the proposals might lead to an increase in smuggling.
But Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire insisted that the paper showed London's 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".
The document outlines a customs arrangement that would see 80% of businesses on the island of Ireland entirely exempt from any new tariffs post-Brexit.
The Government wants to maintain the Common Travel Area which guarantees free movement of people between the UK and the Republic and allows citizens from both jurisdictions to claim benefits and access all public services.
Yesterday, Theresa May moved to assure nationalists here that their rights would be protected in a post-Brexit UK in a platform piece for the Irish News.
"Protecting your citizenship rights, and protecting the Belfast Agreement, are at the heart of our approach," the Prime Minister wrote.
"On the citizenship rights guaranteed by the Belfast Agreement, our position is clear.
"Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the United Kingdom, but it is also the permanent birthright of the people of Northern Ireland to hold both British and Irish citizenship."
Streamlining the border: key elements of the UK government’s paper
GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT
- The UK and EU should formally recognise that the citizenship rights set out in the Good Friday Agreement will continue to be upheld.
- Continue European Peace funding until current programme expires in 2020. Then NI and ROI explore possible future programme.
AVOIDING A HARD GOODS BORDER
- Agree highly streamlined arrangements to mitigate customs procedures for cross-border businesses.
- Secure agreement to avoid the need for border checks on agri-food products between north and south.
- Preferably, agree a new customs partnership with the EU that would avoid the need for any border.
COMMON TRAVEL AREA (CTA)
- UK and EU should agree to recognise ongoing status of CTA.
- CTA can operate in current form without impacting UK’s new immigration system.
- Ireland can maintain free movement of European Economic Area nationals.
- Ireland’s immigration and border arrangements will be unaffected by CTA.
- UK to set out further details of its immigrations plans in the autumn.
- Facilitate the continuation of a single electricity market covering Northern Ireland and the Republic.
- Facilitate the continuation of efficient electricity and gas interconnection between the island of Ireland and Britain.