In an attempt to break the deadlock in negotiations with the EU over the Irish border issue, ministers have revised one of their two options for post-Brexit customs options.
This would see Northern Ireland operate a dual system of regulatory oversight, allowing it to trade freely with the EU and the rest of the UK.
In addition, the plan also includes the implementation of the trade buffer zone for local traders like dairy farmers along Northern Ireland’s 310-mile border with the Republic of Ireland.
The plan is one of several ideas being discussed and may not be proposed to the EU, a government official told Reuters.
The prime minister has ordered her Brexit “war cabinet” to work on the government’s two customs options after top ministers failed to decisively back one over the other.
According to The Sun, which first reported the proposals, the new plans for Northern Ireland are a development of the “maximum facilitation”, or “max fac”, model backed by Brexiteers.
In a statement, a Department for Exiting the EU spokesperson said: “We have set out two viable future customs arrangements with the EU and work is ongoing to refine these.”
Whitehall officials took inspiration for the dual oversight system from Liechtenstein’s relationship with the regimes of both Switzerland and the European Economic Area (EEA), The Sun reports.
Brexit Secretary David Davis is said to be behind the plans, as the head of the cabinet working group on the “max fac” model, with his new scheme coming after he was reportedly persuaded to abandon hope of a technology-based solution to the Irish border issue.
Another cabinet working group is working on the proposed “new custom partnership” with the EU, which is said to be favoured by Theresa May and Chancellor Philip Hammond, who both backed Remain.
It has been suggested the DUP, who prop up Mrs May’s government at Westminster, will be opposed to the new proposals.
The party’s leader, Arlene Foster, who represents a border constituency in the Northern Ireland Assembly and lives inside the proposed buffer zone, has previously warned against any scheme that sees Northern Ireland left with a different status to the rest of the UK.
A source close to the Brexit negotiations told The Sun: “Max Fac 2 is tremendously complicated, but it’s at least something the cabinet can unite around.
“Persuading the DUP and then the EU to agree to it will be a different job altogether and, let’s be honest, it will be very hard work.”
The EU has already rejected the UK’s two differing plans for post-Brexit customs arrangements.
Filmed as part of a Vice News documentary aired this week, the bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said: “The British have been moving forward with several ideas.
“They have two proposals which are being debated by British ministers. Neither of these proposals are operational or acceptable to us.”
Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson accused Mr Davis of trying to “hide a hard border in a buffer zone”.
She said: “Once again this shows the lack of knowledge of border areas and the concerns they face – David Davis obviously didn’t learn much on his flying visits.
“The creation of a buffer zone would merely move the problem away from the border and hide a hard border in a buffer zone.”
Remain supporters also immediately attacked reports of the new customs plans.
Labour MP Chris Leslie, a supporter of the pro-EU Open Britain campaign, branded the new plans “dangerous and impractical”.
He said: “David Davis’s new idea for solving the Northern Ireland border problem manages to combine both a lack of feasibility with a complete ignorance of the history of the region.
“It is both dangerous and impractical. If there was an award for coming up with unnecessarily complicated and convoluted solutions to self-inflicted problems, David Davis would win it every year.
“The solution to this dilemma is staring David Davis in the face: the UK as a whole must stay in the single market and the customs union.”
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tim Brake MP said: “More and more by the day, Tory plans are sounding like something out of Alice in Wonderland.”
Both the EU and the UK government are committed to there being no hardening of the Irish border after Brexit, with Mrs May hoping to display progress on the issue at the next EU summit on 28 June.
A spokesperson for the Department for Exiting the EU said: “We have set out two viable future customs arrangements with the EU and work is ongoing to refine these.
“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 was “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”.
They added: “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.”
The emergence of the new plans came as Northern Ireland’s police chief revealed the service will be asking for more officers after the UK leaves the EU.
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Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable George Hamilton said: “A business case is being prepared which will develop a number of scenarios that will present to government the need for some form of uplift in police numbers and other investments to enable us to fulfill our responsibilities post-Brexit.
“At this time we are not prepare to get into specific numbers, and I don’t want to second-guess the business case, but it will certainly need to be a significant uplift.”