TÁNAISTE Simon Coveney has said the EU is "sceptical" of the British government's suggestion that there is no need for new customs infrastructure on either side of the Irish Sea after Brexit.
Mr Coveney was responding after the British government ruled out any new customs posts at ports in the North and Britain in a new paper setting out how the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol would be implemented.
The protocol was agreed as part of the Brexit withdrawal deal last year. The British government acknowledges that more infrastructure will have to be put in place to increase inspections on animals and agri-food, but crucially the document states: "There will be no construction at points of entry where no plant or animal health checks are currently carried out."
Mr Coveney told RTÉ's 'SixOne' last night: "I think the really tricky area will be around customs and I think there will be a lot of sceptical people in the EU, when they hear the British government saying there will be no new physical infrastructure around customs."
Mr Coveney said the protocol was clear that the EU will be entitled to have a presence to ensure the protocol is being implemented. While the North will be legally part of the UK customs territory under the protocol, it will need to operate the rules of the EU customs code to protect the integrity of the bloc's single market.
But the British paper envisages a system that would presume that goods moving from Britain to the North are to remain there. This is likely to become a key sticking point in technical talks on the protocol between officials in London and Brussels in coming weeks.
Mr Coveney warned last night he did not want the North to get "dragged back into the spotlight of Brexit internationally in a way that is divisive and causes stand-offs".
He added: "I think the British government's paper today is a step forward, but I suspect some elements of it are going to need negotiation, particularly on customs."
British Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said at the heart of the British government's proposals was a "consensual, pragmatic approach that will protect the Belfast Agreement".
DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose party voted against the Brexit withdrawal deal, welcomed the commitment from the British government that "there will be no new physical customs infrastructure and that they see no need to build any such infrastructure".
But Sinn Féin said the protocol should be implemented in full and said it was clear that the British government is planning border control posts and checks at ports of entry for agri-food goods.
"It again highlights the fork-tongued approach the British government has adopted through all this," its Brexit spokesman MP Chris Hazzard said.
Mr Coveney said he was confident that an agreement on implementing the protocol and an EU-UK trade deal without tariffs and quotas can be reached. Negotiators are in a race against time with Boris Johnson's government refusing to countenance asking for an extension to the trade talks beyond the end of this year, which it must do by the end of June.