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Mixed reactions as UK publishes its own 'backstop' position

The UK government paper proposes temporary customs arrangements lasting up to 12 months. Picture by David Young, Press Association

EU chiefs have reacted cautiously to the British government's version of the post-Brexit 'backstop' arrangement to prevent the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The paper says the so-called insurance policy arrangements should not continue for more than a year after the transition period – though the UK government also expects permanent customs arrangements to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest.

The move came after Brexit Secretary David Davis was reported to be considering resigning unless there was a clear time limit for the temporary customs arrangements.

Under the current timetable Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29 next year followed by a transition period running to the end of 2020.

The UK government paper proposes that if there is no final agreement, there should be a temporary customs arrangement lasting up to 12 months. During that period there would be no "tariffs, quotas, rules of origin (or) customs processes" applied to UK-EU trade.

David Davis is believed to have threatened to resign unless there was a stated time limit to the UK's backstop. Picture by Leon Neal, Press Association

At the same time the UK would be able to strike free trade agreements with other countries and to implement those elements which did not affect the functioning of the backstop.

The EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier welcomed the publication of the paper.

He said they would be examining the proposals in the light of three questions: "Is it a workable solution to avoid a hard border? Does it respect the integrity of the single market/customs union? Is it an all-weather backstop?"

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But Tánaiste Simon Coveney warned that unless there was a legally-binding assurance that a hard border would be avoided "in all circumstances", there could be no progress on other elements of the Brexit talks.

"Our strong preference remains an overall EU-UK future relationship which would resolve all issues, however, it remains vital that a legally-binding backstop is agreed to provide certainty that, in all circumstances, a hard border will be avoided," he said.

The European Parliament's Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt said it was "difficult to see" how the proposals could "deliver a workable solution to avoid a hard border".

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the paper was "positive and a step forward".

"It is another demonstration of the prime minister’s commitment to the union – the previously proposed annexation of Northern Ireland was totally unacceptable," he said.

Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said a backstop with a time limit was "by definition not a backstop".

"What we need is a permanent solution to avoid a hard border and nothing less will do," she said.

"So while Theresa May negotiates with her own cabinet, our focus and that of the Irish government must be on defending the national interests of the whole island of Ireland now and in the weeks ahead, as we head towards this European Council meeting."

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said it was in everybody's interests that "sensible, pragmatic solutions" were found before the UK's final departure date.

SDLP Brexit spokesperson Claire Hanna MLA said the British government needs to stop arguing with itself and start coming up with "long-term, workable, solutions".

"No Brexit is good, but a no deal Brexit would be the most catastrophic result possible. The plan put forward today simply acknowledges what could happen if there was a no deal. Yet, it does not provide any definite answers about how it could work.

“The only way to see no borders on these islands is to maintain access to the single market and the customs union, meaning that we should aim higher than a temporary backstop."

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry was sceptical that the alternative ‘backstop’ would be either viable or acceptable to the EU.

He said the paper was "more about managing divisions in the cabinet and Conservative Party".

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