Alternative arrangements to create a frictionless border between the North and South of Ireland could be completed within three years, a report concludes today.
A commission backed by several leading Conservatives suggests that the technology already exists to avoid physical infrastructure at the border.
It also suggests that Northern Ireland could choose to diverge from the rest of the UK in areas such as agricultural rules and regulations if approved by politicians in Belfast.
Significantly, the report does not suggest that the proposals would negate the need for the backstop in the withdrawal agreement.
Instead it argues that the proposals would ensure the backstop is “never triggered” and should be utilised in “any Brexit outcome”.
But the proposal, from a group called ProsperityUK, has been criticised by some trade experts.
Sam Lowe, from the Centre for European Reform, warned that it would create “two tax and regulatory borders”.
He added it would also require Ireland to create a new tax and regulatory border within Ireland.
But Sir Paul Marshall, the co-chairman of Prosperity UK, said the work was important to help “call the bluff” of all sides — showing alternative arrangements should be included within the withdrawal agreement.
The report, which has been backed by Tory MPs including the former ministers Nicky Morgan and Greg Hands, was written after consultations with business, politicians and economic experts, including those based in Northern Ireland.
It suggests that special economic zones could be created “covering frontier traffic and national security” which “offer potentially valuable solutions” that would, they say, respect the realities of the border.
The report addresses issues such as health checks on any live animals, animal or plant produce crossing the border, including milk, pigs and sheep.
Under mandatory EU rules checks have to be done at the border at special inspection posts to guard against cross-border infection on everything from salmonella to mad cow disease.
The report says such sanitary and phytosanitary tests could be carried out by mobile units away from the border.
However the report concedes that any such proposals would require the close co-operation of both Dublin and Brussels.
“We believe that the recommendations contained within our interim report can be achieved, provided there is goodwill on all sides,” the report states.
The commission was set up by Prosperity UK, an organisation created in 2017, that describes itself as an independent platform bringing together business, academics and policymakers to look constructively at the UK’s future outside the EU.
It said it welcomed the opportunity for feedback so it could “refine” its recommendations.
Aodhán Connolly, the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium director, said economic free zones would create borders within borders.
He expressed scepticism about how the alternative arrangements could comply with the December 2017 joint commitment between the EU and the UK to avoid “a hard border, including any infrastructure or related checks and controls”.
“The solutions proffered add complexity and costs that will make business in NI less competitive and in some cases unviable,” he told The Guardian.
“But with all that said, this is a step forward and it provides some much-needed informed debate on the issue,” he added.