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Brexiteers' 'common sense' border plan gets short shrift from nationalists

(left to right) Marcus Fysh, Owen Paterson, Theresa Villiers and David Davis ahead of the European Research Group (ERG) border blueprint launch. Picture by Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

THE group of high-profile Brexiteers who yesterday set out proposals for ensuring free-flowing trade across the border insist theirs is a common-sense solution.

But with the exception of the DUP, the European Research Group (ERG) blueprint received a largely negative response on this side of the Irish Sea.

In Britain, it was being cast as a bid to oust Theresa May – though this has been refuted by the paper's backers.

Sinn Féin branded the plan "pure fantasy", while the SDLP said there was no substance, and Fine Gael called it "dreamland stuff".

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds described the paper as "positive and timely", however, the Ulster Unionists' leader Robin Swann warned that the ERG was inadvertently leaving the "door open to a regulatory border down the Irish Sea".

The proposals were launched in London by ERG chairman and arch Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was joined by former Stormont first minister Lord Trimble, ex-secretaries of state Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers, and former minister for exiting the EU David Davis.

They want the British 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.

Mr Paterson said there was already a border to deal with issues like tax and insisted there was "absolutely no need" for new physical infrastructure.

He said the group could help the European Commission and the British government sort out technical and administrative procedures but that the plan included "absolutely nothing new".

"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," Mr Paterson said.

Lord Trimble, 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 claimed EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier was suggesting that Northern Ireland should no longer be part of the UK for the purposes of trade, which the peer said was a "breach of the (Good Friday) agreement".

The ERG recommends an all-island a Common Biosecurity Zone – similar to what currently exists – which would allow the smooth movement of agricultural goods across the border, while for other goods, it argues that existing simplified customs procedures would help avoid a hard 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 accused Brussels of making "a major error" in listening almost solely to the warnings of Leo Varadkar's government 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.

Sinn Féin MP Chris Hazzard said the blueprint showed the Tories cared little about Brexit's impact on Ireland.

"These proposals are a rehash of the unacceptable and already rejected and failed notion that a technological border can be put imposed post Brexit – they are pure fantasy with no attempt to set out how they can actually be achieved," he said.

SDLP MLA Claire Hanna said the Tory Brexiteers needed to recognise the majority of people in the north's desire to remain in the EU.

"The SDLP have been consistent in saying that the only way to protect the free movement of goods and people is for Northern Ireland to remain within the single market and customs union,” she said.

Mr Dodds said the paper included "sensible, practical measures" to ensure there was no hard border.

He claimed people were using the border and "the political process in Northern Ireland more generally" to try and ensure a soft Brexit.

Mr Swann welcomed ERG's engagement on the issue but said he was worried about the reference to "initial full alignment" and how it may lead to checks on goods moving between the north and Britain.

"While this might not be intentional, I fear any hint that backbench Brexiteers might allow such a situation to arise will be music to Michel Barnier's ears," he said.

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