World:No physical barrier to be placed on Irish border, UK says, as Brexit talks continue

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Britain has ruled out placing any physical customs infrastructure on the Irish border after leaving the European Union, saying it will present an alternative to the contentious “backstop” border plan in the coming days, a British junior minister for Brexit has said.

Key points:

  • The land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is the sticking point for an orderly Brexit
  • EU wants a checking point for British goods so they don’t threaten the single market
  • Boris Johnston says he will have an alternative plan “soon”

“Any deal on Brexit on the 31st of October must avoid the whole [of the UK] or just part, i.e. Northern Ireland, being trapped in an arrangement where they are a rule-taker,” James Duddridge told Parliament.

“Under no circumstance will the UK place infrastructure, checks or controls at the border.”

Tuesday’s confirmation was made just days before the Government presents the EU with proposals for an amended Brexit agreement, including ideas to replace the contested ‘backstop’ insurance policy.

Avoiding a hard border

The 500-kilometre land border between Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland has been the sticking point in efforts to agree on the terms of an orderly British exit from the EU.

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Food rotting in trucks, planes grounded at Heathrow and a hard Irish border raising tensions are all possibilities facing the UK if a no-deal Brexit goes through.

Today it is essentially an open border. There is no frontier infrastructure and there are no checks at roughly 270 crossing points used by tens of thousands of vehicles every day.

This is because Ireland and Britain are both members of the EU and fall under the same ‘single market’ customs and regulatory arrangements.

But when Britain leaves, it will become the only land frontier between the EU and Britain, and so logically a “hard border” would be needed to ensure that goods entering Ireland from Britain comply with EU standards and do not threaten the bloc’s single market through price dumping or unfair competition.

If it failed to check goods coming in from Britain, Ireland could find the EU raising questions on whether Irish exports to the rest of the Union should remain free of all checks at their ports.

Backstop solution

To get around this, a so-called “backstop” became the keystone of a Withdrawal Agreement that former Prime Minister Theresa May struck with the EU last November.

Under the backstop mechanism, effectively an insurance policy to keep the border open, Britain would have remained in a customs union with the EU “unless and until” alternative arrangements were found to avoid a hard border.

Ireland says an invisible border is a key national interest as any checks or infrastructure on the frontier could undermine Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace deal, known as the Good Friday Agreement.

More than 3,600 people died in the three-decade conflict between unionists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain British and Irish nationalists who want Northern Ireland to join a united Ireland ruled from Dublin.

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The open border has helped defuse anger among Irish nationalists about British rule.

However, many British lawmakers oppose the prospect of being bound to EU rules and customs duties that would prevent Britain doing its own trade deals and leave it overseen by EU judges.

Boris Johnson, who became British prime minister two months ago, has insisted that to reach a new withdrawal agreement, the backstop would have to be struck out.

He has vowed to take Britain out of the EU on October 31, with or without a deal.

‘A very good offer’

Mr Johnson wants “alternative arrangements” to be put in place, but the EU insists that any new arrangement must maintain a fully open border, protect the EU single market and maintain the north-south cooperation made possible by the Good Friday Agreement.

There was talk last month the Johnson Government was considering an initial EU proposal that the backstop would apply only to Northern Ireland, effectively drawing a border in the Irish Sea between the island of Ireland and the rest of Britain.

A pro-Irish unity sign on the side of a road in Londonderry.

PHOTO: A pro-Irish unity sign urging no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic on the side of a road in Londonderry.

However, this option appears to have been abandoned by Mr Johnson, who no longer has a parliamentary majority and may need the support of lawmakers from the DUP, a Northern Ireland unionist party favouring British identity.

The EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said last week that Britain had not presented any “legal and operational” proposals that could break the impasse, and many in Brussels doubt Mr Johnson is genuinely seeking a solution.

Mr Johnson said on Tuesday that he would submit “a very good offer … very soon”.

He denied a report on Monday by Irish broadcaster RTE that there would have to be border posts 8-16km from the border.

“That is not what we are proposing at all,” he said.

“And there are very good reasons why that would not be a good idea.

“And I think everybody who is familiar with the situation in Ireland, in Northern Ireland, could understand why you wouldn’t want it both for practical reasons and also for reasons of sentiment that we totally, totally understand.”

However, he added that there would need to be checks somewhere on the island of Ireland after Brexit.

“That’s just the reality,” he said. “Because in the end, a sovereign, united country must have a single customs territory.”