Northern Ireland business experts refuse to endorse no-deal Brexit
Government efforts to find a solution to the Irish border issue have suffered a setback after its Northern Irish business advisers asked for changes to internal documents relating to potential alternative arrangements.
Some terms of reference within the documents were understood to be a cause for concern, according to the BBC, who acquired the papers.
The government’s business experts based in Northern Ireland believe the terms could see their recommendations used to endorse a no-deal Brexit and have now moved to rectify the matter.
Members of the Alternative Arrangements Advisory Group, a Business and Trade Union largely comprised of Northern Ireland based industry leaders, are understood to be those concerned.
The group has been tasked by the Department for Exiting the European Union with advising on the use of new potential technologies that may be used to maintain the invisible Irish border in the aftermath of Brexit.
It is also within their mandate to formulate and test out ideas on alternative solutions to the current backstop.
Conservative leadership candidates Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are both known to be in favour of using technology as a solution to the backstop issue, which would tie the UK to the EU on customs and regulations after Brexit and may last for an indefinite period of time.
The Irish government and the EU would welcome technological solutions but have repeatedly insisted that the backstop must remain in any withdrawal agreement, which some regard as unacceptable.
The issue identified within the government document relates to the group’s “purpose and objective”, described as considering alternative arrangements “without prejudice to the UK’s future customs and regulatory relationship with the EU”.
Members of the group quickly addressed ministers in a meeting, asking for the wording of the indicated objective to be changed.
The group sought reassurance that their recommendations could not be subsequently used to endorse no-deal.
The document also reads that the focus of discussions “should not be on the negotiability of proposals” and that the response from the Irish government and EU to new technological plans would be “out of scope”.
Concerns were also raised about the lack of commitment in the document to act within the bounds of the 2017 Joint Report, agreed between the UK government and the EU to specifically avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The document has no mention of the Joint Report in its terms of reference nor background context paper, although an accompanying presentation to the document does indicate that compliance with international commitments must include full consideration of "the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and the 2017 Joint Report”.
A government spokesperson said of the concerns: "As is normal in a first meeting of advisory groups, some general comments were provided regarding our terms of reference, which we are finalising at present".
The spokesperson went on to describe the meetings as "very constructive".