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Boris Johnson’s ’secret Irish border plans‘ dismissed as non-starter

Posted by hkarner - 2. Oktober 2019

Date: 01-10-2019
Source: The Guardian

Report cites leaked proposals for clearance areas 5-10 miles from border and real-time tracking of goods

The Irish border has formed one of the most troublesome sticking points of the Brexit negotiations.

Boris Johnson’s secret plans to solve the Irish border Brexit challenge involve customs sites on both sides of the border and real-time tracking devices on lorries, it has been reported.

The ideas, which mark a departure from his promise not to put infrastructure on the border, are part of four unofficial papers submitted by the UK to Brussels by Johnson’s team.

The broadcaster RTÉ, which has had sight of the the tightly guarded proposals, is reporting that customs clearance sites would be sited five to 10 miles from the border to the north and the south to deal with imports and exports.

Traders would have the choice of lodging their papers at these sites, similar to the ones that existed before the single market came into existence, or electing to be tracked electronically in an online “transit” arrangement.

The idea of permanent clearance sites on both sides of the border, even five to 10 miles away, and real-time tracking of the movements of goods are unlikely to be supported by the Irish government.

A spokesman for Downing Street said: “Nothing we are proposing involves checks or controls at the border. That is an absolute commitment.”

A government source said the report was a misrepresentation of the “non-paper”, which discussed customs checks at place of origin or destination of goods.

In the limited cases that inspections were needed, physical checks could be at dedicated premises, factories or production sites, the source suggested.

But Simon Coveney, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, dismissed the proposals as a “non-starter”, and called for a “serious proposal” from the UK.

Sinn Féin in Ireland and the Social Democratic and Labour party in Northern Ireland also dismissed the plans on Monday night. Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said they were “absolutely out of the question”, while SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “It doesn’t matter if it’s a mile, five miles or 10 miles away, the presence of physical checks will create economic and security challenges that are unacceptable.”

Labour said the proposals were “utterly unworkable”. Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said: “They would place an enormous administrative burden on businesses and rely on technology that does not yet exist.

“Crucially, if true, they represent a rowing back on the commitments made to the people of Northern Ireland two years ago that there would be no return to a hard border or related checks or controls.”

The leak comes as Johnson puts his finishing touches on formal written proposals expected to go to Brussels in the next week for a revised Brexit deal.

Although all the indications are that a large gap remains in thinking, signs have emerged that the hardline position of the Conservative party’s most Eurosceptic backbenchers has softened just days before Boris Johnson’s team are due to enter a “tunnel” of secret negotiations with Brussels.

Mark Francois, the deputy chair of the European Research Group, has opened the door to a potential Brexit deal, indicating he would look at one even if it included a version of the controversial Irish border backstop to which the Eurosceptic ERG was once implacably opposed.

During a heated and sometimes bad-tempered event on the party conference fringe, he indicated that the “Spartan” wing of the party was in the mood for a deal.

“It has been sometimes been said that we will vote against anything regardless. That’s not true,” he said referring to the bloc of 28 backbenchers who voted against Theresa May’s Brexit deal three times.

“If there is some form of deal, be it over the backstop or anything else, then I and my colleagues will look at it and read it very carefully, because at the end of the day you are talking about international treaty law. So I’ll look at a deal if there is one,” he said.

Francois’ comments were seen as a subtle shift in approach for the ERG, whose support could unlock a deal for Johnson.

As recently as August, the de facto whip of the ERG warned that Johnson must honour his promise to kill off Theresa May’s deal completely.

Johnson has publicly said May’s withdrawal agreement is dead but the formal proposals, due to go to the EU next week, are expected to revolve around a revised backstop for Northern Ireland involving an agreement for agri-food on the island of Ireland and a possible time limit on the other elements of the backstop.

“My acid test will be: does it mean we genuinely leave the EU?” Francois told a meeting organised by the Eurosceptic thinktank Bruges Group.

He said his support for a deal “rather depends what’s in it … As a so-called Spartan, if it means we genuinely leave the EU, if it means we genuinely leave on Halloween, I will be the first in the aye lobby. If it really means we don’t, then I will vote against it and if we don’t no amount of browbeating will make me change my mind.”

His remarks follow weeks of shifting mood over the Irish backstop. The Democratic Unionist party, which was implacably opposed to the backstop, has also indicated it was in the mood for a deal. It is understood that the DUP has been consulted on the plans that Johnson is to take to Brussels next week.

Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, also hinted last week that there could be amendments to the withdrawal agreement but warned there was still a huge gap between the UK and Irish positions.

The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, said she would look at the possibility of a backstop with a time limit but warned that agreeing to consider one was not the same as “advocating” one.

She told the Bruges Group: “It would be good to get rid of the iniquitous backstop” but added that it would be “good to get a deal”.

She called for space to be given to negotiators, who now have fewer than 17 days to come up with a deal before the next EU summit.

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