All options for the Irish border after Brexit will damage Northern Ireland's economy, leaked analysis shows

Charles McQuillan / GettyA bus crossing along the border between Northern and Ireland passes a sign campaigning against a so called hard Brexit, on February 2, 2017 in Newry, Northern Ireland.
  • All of the UK’s proposals for the Irish border after Brexit will damage Northern Ireland’s economy, according to leaked internal analysis
  • Papers, letters and briefings were leaked from the Northern Irish executive on Wednesday. They highlight the enormous challenges that Brexit poses to the country as it tries to navigate Brexit.
  • Northern Ireland’s top civil servant warned Downing Street last year the UK’s proposals for the Irish border were unworkable.

LONDON – All of the UK’s proposals for avoiding a hard Irish border after Brexit will damage Northern Ireland’s economy, according to leaked internal analysis prepared by the country’s economic department, with its top civil servant also warning Downing Street last year that its proposals were unworkable.

A tranche of leaked papers, letters and briefings leaked from the Northern Irish executive on Wednesday – at least one of which was sent to the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins – illustrate the enormous complexities the country faces as it tries to navigate Brexit.

Among the papers, which were leaked by the European Parliament group which includes Sinn Fein, is an internal working paper, marked “official sensitive,” which concludes that all possible proposals to avoid a hard border in between Northern Ireland and Ireland would cause economic damage in the province.

The paper said: “There is no quick or simple solution to the land border.

“There is likely to be some negative impact on the economy whether border controls are sited at the land or sea border, at least in the short-to-medium term.

“The policy question is therefore how these impacts can be minimised and what transitional support is required.”

The analysis lays bare the problem Downing Street faces as it tries to create a workable solution which avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland when the UK leaves the European Union.

Theresa May has pledged that no customs checks or infrastructure, once a target for dissident terrorists, will not return to the border, but her plan to leave the customs union and single market after Brexit makes such a commitment highly difficult.

Downing Street insisted this week that May would not U-turn on her plan to leave the customs union despite growing suggestions that it is the only way to solve the Irish border impasse in the absence of better proposals from the UK government.

The leak suggests that the UK has long been aware of the weakness of its proposals. A letter sent in August 2017 by David Sterling, head of the civil service in Northern Ireland, to Olly Robbins, chief UK Brexit negotiator, warned that the UK’s plans for a “customs partnership” with the EU in Northern Ireland presented a “significant challenge.”

Under the heading “back door risk,” Sterling indicated that such an arrangement would likely need enforcing with visible infrastructure, which the UK has committed to avoiding. He warned Robbins that the “visibility and impact” of the “robust enforcement mechanism” necessary for the plan was a “significant challenge.”

Screen Shot 2018 04 26 at 11.14.32Executive Office Northern Ireland

Even if such a plan worked, Sterling said there would still be significant difficulties in maintaining cross-border trade.

“The example of Turkey illustrates that customs duties are only one part of the picture and technical barriers can be equally disruptive to trade,” he wrote.

The UK and EU are due to restart negotiations over the border in Ireland next week, and Cabinet is expected to discuss the matter this week.

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