Boris Johnson has made a new Brexit offer to Brussels to replace the Irish backstop.
The prime minister is proposing to abolish the current backstop in the UK-EU Withdrawal Treaty, and to replace it with a mixture of checks at ports on the Irish Sea and away from the border in Ireland.
He has implored the EU to engage with his new plan, warning that a no-deal Brexit would represent a “failure of statecraft for which we would all be responsible”.
Arlene Foster, leader of Northern Ireland’s DUP, which is propping up the Tory government, welcomed the plan which she called “entirely consistent with the spirit and principles of the Belfast Agreement”.
Irish leader Leo Varadkar said he had not had a chance to read through the proposals or talk to Mr Johnson, but said what he has heard of the new plan “is not promising and does not appear to form the basis of an agreement”.
The backstop is a way of avoiding a hard border between Ireland – which is in the EU – and Northern Ireland after the UK leaves.
In a letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, the outgoing European Commission president, Mr Johnson said the current backstop, which had proposed a customs union between the UK and EU to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, was a “bridge to nowhere” and “a new way forward must be found”.
Mr Johnson acknowledged there was “very little time”, with the EU leaders’ summit – where he is hoping they will sign off the deal – happening in 15 days.
Under the plan, Great Britain – England, Wales and Scotland – would aim to reach a trade deal with the EU by the end of 2020.
Northern Ireland would leave the EU’s customs union but remain tied to single market regulations on agrifoods and industrial goods for four years.
After that, the province would decide whether to remain aligned to EU rules – and reduce friction on the Irish border – or break with them, creating a hard border in Northern Ireland.
Mr Johnson’s letter says: “[These proposals] provide for continued regulatory alignment for a potentially prolonged period across the whole island of Ireland after the transition, as long as the people or Northern Ireland agree to that.”
But the prime minister is clear in his letter that Northern Ireland has to be part of the UK’s customs territory not the EU’s, which would require customs checks away from the border.
He added: “It has always been a fundamental point for this government that the UK will leave the EU customs union at the end of the transition period. We must do so whole and entire. Control of trade policy is fundamental to our vision.”
The prime minister acknowledged in his letter that “our proposals will mean changes from the situation that prevails in Ireland and Northern Ireland”, but insisted it was “entirely reasonable to manage this border in a different way”.
The UK government is proposing that any checks would be done at the point of departure or arrival and said it believed any physical checks could take place at traders’ premises or other locations, as it stressed there would be no new need for infrastructure and border check points.
A government source acknowledged that this was a big departure but said discreet conversations with key figures in Dublin suggested the Irish government would be open to discussions on customs.
However, government figures also said the Benn Act, which compels the prime minister to ask for a Brexit extension if he has not secured a deal by 19 October, had made Brussels less willing to engage.
Dublin has consistently said it will not accept any checks on the island of Ireland.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, speaking ahead of the formal release of documents on Friday, said he was “not too encouraged” about the principle of customs checks of the island of Ireland and a regulatory borders between Great Britain and the Northern Ireland for four years.
The commission will look at these proposals in the coming hours and then brief the European Council on the plan.
The DUP on Wednesday welcomed the proposal, saying it “provides a basis for the EU to continue in a serious and sustained engagement with the UK government without risk to the internal market”.
Under the new proposals, Northern Ireland could receive a financial boost from the UK government after Mr Johnson promised “appropriate commitment” to help boost economic growth.