No border posts or physical monitoring should be installed at the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the Government said as it unveiled plans for one of the most contentious Brexit issues.
The Whitehall paper has effectively recommended no changes to the current arrangements.
The position paper also said that the Government is committed to maintaining the border-free Common Travel Area covering the UK and the Republic of Ireland. That means free movement across the border for British, Irish and EU citizens.
The British government said it wanted a seamless and frictionless frontier without “physical border infrastructure and border posts”.
“We don’t want to see a border between parts of the United Kingdom,” Prime Minister Theresa May said.
“What we want to see is an arrangement in relation to customs and borders with the European Union which will enable us to see no return to the hard borders of the past in Northern Ireland, to enable that flow of goods and people between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
“That’s not just in the interests of Northern Ireland and the UK, it’s in the interests of the Republic of Ireland and the European Union too. ”
Video: UK plans ‘frictionless’ Brexit Ireland border
The paper confounded speculation that the UK would advocate CCTV cameras or number plate recognition systems as part of its vision for a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
It rejected the idea of an effective customs border in the Irish Sea as “not constitutionally or economically viable”.
Instead, it recommended wide-ranging tariff exemptions for small- and medium-sized businesses trading over the border and suggested that larger companies could report imports and exports online.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney welcomed the proposals, though he said more clarity was needed.
Democratic Unionist Party leader and former Stormont first minister Arlene Foster – whose party supports Mrs May’s minority Government in Westminster – described the paper as a “constructive step”.
“It is clear the Government has listened to voices in Belfast, Dublin, Brussels and London about how the United Kingdom’s only EU land border could be managed after we exit the EU,” she said.
But Sinn Fein called it “delusional”.
Image: The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier visited the border in May
Critics fear that the absence of a hard border with the Irish Republic – an EU member which accepts the free movement of people from the bloc – would effectively offer a “back door” into the UK for immigrants after Brexit.
At the moment, some 30,000 people cross the 500km border every day without customs or immigration checks.
But the Government said it is “confident” it can still enforce new immigration controls through checks on things such as the jobs market and welfare system.
The paper also says the Government wants the Good Friday Agreement – which sealed peace in a region where around 3,600 people had been killed in violence known as the Troubles – to be written into EU withdrawal agreement.
And Mrs May also moved to reassure nationalists in Northern Ireland, also saying that some of the EU funding of the peace process could be replaced by UK funding.
“We will absolutely work for all sides in Northern Ireland, we’re absolutely committed to the Belfast agreement and ensuring the decisions we take are decision for every community in Northern Ireland,” said Mrs May.
Video: The post-Brexit Irish border issue
The document is the second in a series of position papers being released by the Government ahead of a new round of Brexit talks with Brussels next week.
On Tuesday, it published plans for a temporary customs union with the EU, drawing a cold response from Brussels, with one official branding the proposal “fantasy”.
However, on Wednesday, the European Commission called the papers a “positive step”, adding: “Clock is ticking & this will allow us to make progress”.
It also said: “On Ireland, we must discuss how to maintain Common Travel Area&protect Good Friday Agreement before looking at technical solutions.”
The CBI said the Government was going “in the right direction”, but said there’s “a way to go before businesses are reassured that trade will continue smoothly after Brexit”.
Image: Oyster farmer Darren Carlingford is worried about how Brexit will affect his business
On the island, some shellfish farmers selling oysters in Europe have said post-Brexit customs and Irish border ideas are “utterly deluded” and could wipe out their businesses.
Darren Cunningham, who runs Killowen Shellfish on the shores of Carlingford Lough in Co Down, said: “Light touch? I just can’t see that working.
“It just can’t be done unless they go and look in the back of every lorry, the way it was in the past.”