The UK government will insist there must be “no return to the hard borders of the past” as it publishes its proposals for ensuring goods and people can continue to travel freely between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic after Brexit.
In the latest of a series of papers covering different aspects of Britain’s future relationship with the EU, David Davis’s Brexit department will say it hopes to agree upfront with the EU that there will be no need for “physical infrastructure” such as new border posts.
The future status of the land border between Northern Ireland, which will leave the EU along with the rest of the UK, and the Republic, which will remain a member, is one of the knotty issues the European commission has insisted must be resolved early in negotiations, before discussions about future trade relations can begin.
A government source said: “As Michel Barnier [the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator] himself has said, the solution cannot be based on a precedent so we’re looking forward to seeing the EU’s position paper on Ireland.
“But it’s right that as we shape the unprecedented model, we have some very clear principles. Top of our list is to agree upfront no physical border infrastructure – that would mean a return to the border posts of the past and is completely unacceptable to the UK.”
Whether it will be possible to prevent any border checks at all will depend on what new customs deal the UK manages to reach with the EU as the talks progress further.
In a separate paper published on Tuesday, the government moots two proposals: either a “streamlined” border managed by the UK, or a customs partnershipin which the UK so closely mirrors the EU’s approach that no border at all would be necessary.
It acknowledges that the second option would require “facilitations reflecting the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland” – such as “new trusted trader arrangements” for large firms, which business groups are likely to fear could impose new administrative burdens.
The government also reaffirms its determination to maintain the Common Travel Area, which allows 30,000 people a day to travel unhindered across the border. And it rejects the idea, favoured by some in Dublin, of a “sea border” – which would lead to passport checks being imposed on passengers arriving at ports and airports in the Republic – as “not constitutionally or economically viable”.
With the Irish government recently pouring scorn on the idea of an “invisible border” that would use new technologies to check vehicles and goods without having to stop them, it remains unclear how Britain believes the border posts can be avoided.
Labour’s Northern Ireland spokesman, Owen Smith, said: “The government say they want trade across the Irish border to be frictionless and seamless, but actually they look clueless as to how they’re going to achieve that.”
He criticised the government for pressing ahead while the Stormont assembly continued to be suspended. “Producing this paper in the absence of a Northern Ireland executive with no substantive consultation with any of the Northern Ireland parties further damages the ability of the British government to resolve the impasse in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Nationalists in Northern Ireland expressed concern that the idea of “seamless, frictionless” trade could be a pipe dream. The Social Democratic and Labour party’s South Belfast assembly representative Claire Hanna said Britain’s stance was a case of “wanting the cake and eating it”.
Hanna said she doubted the EU would give Britain the same deal as a member state in regard to any new customs deal.
“Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances must be understood. The best way to protect our economy and insulate people from the worst aspects of this disastrous decision is to maintain access to the single market and customs union. Ireland cannot be a casualty of the myopic anti-Europe agenda in Britain,” she said.
The Ulster Unionist party urged the Dublin government and nationalist parties in the north to be more positive about the UK’s proposals and not engage in anti-British politics.
Steve Aiken, a UUP assembly member, said: “I would caution the Republic of Ireland and nationalist parties against endlessly rubbishing whatever comes forward from the UK government. This should be about securing the best set of outcomes for the people of Northern Ireland, not trying to teach the UK government a lesson. The continued heckling gives rise to the perception that their focus is on the latter.”
Leo Varadkar, the new Irish taoiseach, will use a visit to Canada in the coming days to see how technology is used there to smooth trade across its border with the United States. He sparked irritation in Westminster this month when he said: “What we’re not going to do is to design a border for the Brexiteers because they’re the ones who want a border.”
The Irish government issued a statement welcoming further details of the government’s approach. “The taoiseach and the minister for foreign affairs and trade have called for greater clarity from the British government on its approach to the negotiations, and publication of the new paper is timely and helpful in this regard,” it said.
“The emphasis on the priority areas identified by the government, including the Common Travel Area, the Good Friday agreement, north/south cooperation and avoiding a hard border is welcome. Protecting the peace process is crucial and it must not become a bargaining chip in the negotiations.”
The Labour MP Conor McGinn, of the campaign group Open Britain, said it was unclear how the government would limit immigration – a central motivation for the Brexit vote, according to Theresa May – while allowing people to travel freely from the Republic to Northern Ireland and back.
“A border must not be reimposed in Ireland, either for people or for goods. The government has failed to say how it can reconcile its desire to maintain the Common Travel Area with its policy of limiting and monitoring immigration,” he said.
Unlike a separate paper on Britain’s future customs partnership with the EU, the Northern Ireland proposals will be formally tabled as part of the next stage of Brexit negotiations, which are due to resume in Brussels this month.
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