By Sam Lister and Andrew Woodcock, Press Association Political Staff
Brexiteer proposals to resolve the Irish border issue are “boring” and “nothing new” but offer a commons-sense solution to the problem, according to backers.
Former cabinet ministers and an ex-Northern Ireland first minister set out a blueprint they claim would allow the UK to leave the EU’s single market and customs union without the need for a hard border in Ireland.
The European Research Group (ERG) of Brexiteer Tories called for the Government to agree equivalence of UK and EU regulations for the safety of agricultural products and allow Brussels inspectors into Northern Ireland to check their implementation.
Former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson said there is already a border to deal with issues like tax and insisted there was “absolutely no need” for new physical infrastructure.
The European Commission’s proposals would impose a border against the will of a large number of people in Northern Ireland and are a “dangerous concept”, he said.
Mr Paterson added: “Our paper shows that we can help the European Commission, we can help the Government and with current technical and administrative procedures – there is nothing new in here, it’s actually quite boring when you get to read it, there’s absolutely nothing new in here, it’s all been worked out elsewhere – we can deliver an ordered border which will not pose any threat to the integrity of the European single market or customs union.”
Former Northern Ireland first minister Lord Trimble, who was a key figure in securing the Good Friday Agreement, insisted it was “completely wrong” to say Brexit undermined the peace deal and would spark violence.
He said: “Here we have Brussels and (Michel) Barnier suggesting that Northern Ireland should no longer be part of the United Kingdom for the purposes of trade.
“That is contrary to the agreement, it is a breach of the agreement. If anything is likely to lead to instability, this is it.”
Former Brexit Secretary David Davis said the paper set out a practical way of unlocking the negotiations on the border.
He said: “I commend it to you for its common sense, its practicality, its effectiveness in dealing with all of the serious issues while, at the same time, delivering on the promise to the British people to leave the single market, leave the customs union and, therefore, leave the European Union.”
Labour’s Alison McGovern, who supports the People’s Vote campaign for a fresh referendum, said the plans were “profoundly dangerous to the stability and security” of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which props up Theresa May’s minority Government, said the proposals were “positive and timely”.
Northern Ireland and the Republic would be maintained as a Common Biosecurity Zone after Brexit, allowing the smooth movement of related goods across the border, under the proposals.
For other goods, the ERG said existing simplified customs procedures could continue to be used to avoid the need for checks at the border.
Larger companies would use “trusted trader” schemes to clear goods for export and import, and other declarations would be incorporated into the existing system used for VAT returns.
The ERG paper said Brussels had made “a major error” in listening almost solely to the warnings of Leo Varadkar’s government in Dublin on the potential for the border issue to disrupt the peace process, contrasting his administration’s stance with the “co-operative and practical” approach of predecessor Enda Kenny.
Warnings that manned checkpoints at the border would become a target for terrorists fail to recognise that checks are already conducted for tax, VAT, currency, excise duties and security without the need for any physical intervention at the border, said the group.
They cited customs chiefs from the UK and the Republic who have said they do not expect new infrastructure to be needed after Brexit.
In response to EU concerns that goods that do not meet its standards – like US genetically modified crops and chlorine-washed chicken – might enter its markets via Northern Ireland, the ERG said such breaches could be handled in the same way police on both sides of the border tackle smuggling of drugs, fuel or alcohol.