Northern Ireland news

Border buffer zone dismissed as 'fantastical'

How a 10-mile buffer zone on the northern side of the border might look. Graphic by Brendan Hughes

PROPOSALS to create a 10-mile-wide trade `buffer zone' at the Irish border have been dismissed as "fantastical".

Northern Ireland could be given joint EU and UK status under proposals being drawn up by Brexit secretary David Davis, according to reports.

Prime Minister Theresa May's cabinet is split between her preferred "customs partnership" - under which the UK would gather tariffs on behalf of the EU - and a so-called "maximum facilitation" solution using technology to avoid the need for border checks after Brexit.

With pressure mounting to agree a position before a summit of EU leaders on June 28, Mrs May set up two working groups to find amendments to the schemes which could unite her ministers.

According to The Sun, Mr Davis - who heads the 'Max Fac' group - is ready to drop support for technological solutions, after police warned that infrastructure like numberplate recognition cameras would become a target for attack.

Instead, he is reportedly devising a plan based on a "double-hatted" model in place in Liechtenstein, which would allow the north to operate both UK and EU regulations at the same time.

A 10-mile-wide "special economic zone" could be created along the 310-mile border, within which traders could operate under the Republic's rules.

An unnamed Whitehall source acknowledged it would be a challenge to secure backing for the plan from the DUP, and it was sharply criticised by opposition politicians.

Labour MP Virendra Sharma, a supporter of the Best for Britain campaign, said with the latest proposals "anyone would think the government is making this up as they going along".

Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: "More and more by the day, Tory plans are sounding like something out of Alice in Wonderland.

"The public must be given the final say on the deal, with the opportunity to exit from Brexit."

Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson said the proposal would be an attempt to hide a hard border in a buffer zone.

"The latest reports of a new plan on Brexit and the border from David Davies are light on detail and do not take into account the reality of life along the border, particularly in areas such as Derry, Strabane and Newry which are essentially cross-border," she said.

"Once again this shows the lack of knowledge of border areas and the concerns they face.

"This proposed plan, which is still being devised, focuses solely on trade and does not take into account the huge impact Brexit will have on the rights of people in the north."

DUP MP Sammy Wilson also said the idea was "nonsense".

"None of these proposals have been discussed with the DUP and at first examination they appear to be at best contradictory," he said.

"Whilst the idea seems to be that movement can take place within the buffer zone, what happens to trade from outside the buffer zone when it crosses into that zone? Do checks have to be carried out there?

"Instead of moving from one set of half-cooked ideas to the other it is now time for the government to put down its foot and make it clear to EU negotiators that the prime minister stands by her commitment that no deal is better than a bad deal."

A spokesman for the Department for Exiting the European Union did not deny that the proposal was under consideration.

"We have set out two viable future customs arrangements with the EU and work is ongoing to refine these," he said.

"Both of these would deliver on our commitments to ensure UK-EU trade is as frictionless as possible, avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, preserve the integrity of the UK's internal market and enable us to establish an independent international trade policy."

A Downing Street spokesman said: "The Prime Minister has been absolutely clear that we cannot and will not accept a customs border down the Irish Sea, and that we will preserve the integrity of the UK's common market.

"Work is ongoing on customs plans that will achieve this, as well as ensuring we can strike trade deals around the world, that trade remains as frictionless as possible, and that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland."

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