Robert Jackman

Can advanced technologies solve the Irish border problem?

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As Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy begins to take from, the new prime minister has doubled down on promises that he will dump the notorious Irish backstop - the ill-fated customs arrangement intended to act as an insurance against needing a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but which many blame for the failure of Theresa May’s Brexit deal. But even if Brussels can be persuaded to drop the backstop itself, the issue of the Irish border - and the practicality of carrying out the necessary checks associated with being outside the EU’s customs union - is unlikely to disappear entirely.

One solution often put forward by Brexiteers is to use technological solutions to carry out the necessary checks without installing physical infrastructure. In February, it was revealed that Whitehall had begun conversations with the technology company Fujitsu on a ‘secret plan’ to do just that. The scheme would use technologies like GPS tracking to keep the border open, while minimising disruption to traders - and ordinary citizens. But how much would such a scheme cost - and how long would it take? Back in May - as the Conservative leadership contest was heating up - The Spectator hosted a lunch (sponsored by Fujitsu), bringing together customs experts, techies and government ministers for a detailed discussion on the Irish border question.

We kicked off with an outline of the concept known as the Drive Through Border. Frank Dunsmuir, Fujitsu’s head of border tech, explained how the concept had evolved: ‘We took the concept of electronic identification of the vehicle at any one time containing all the details you need about the goods, the manifest and the customs documents and announcing itself at the border. You could even automatically process customs systems – like declarations – and pass the data on to Border Force and HMRC. This could be done in advance of goods reaching the border, giving the authorities time to make assessments and plan any inspections they may want to perform away from the border.’

The scheme has support from customs experts. Lars Karlsson, Sweden’s former head of customs and the author of a report, commissioned by Brussels, on tech solutions for the Irish border, explained how the systems had been deployed elsewhere in the world: ‘Many of these technologies are used on the US/Canada, Norway/Sweden and other borders together with techniques like Trusted Trader schemes, so it is a matter of changing the way we work, the processes and our legislation to accommodate these new systems. It is not all about technology’ Some of the technologies were being used on much more difficult borders: ‘If we work some of these types of systems at the Chechnya border, on the Iran/Iraq borders, and on the Paraguay/Brazil border, then of course it can be done here – when the country concerned is one of the leading trading nations in the world,’ he said. ‘Yet sometimes in the Brexit discussion it’s as if the Irish border, with all respect for its complexity, is the only difficult border in the world.’

In fact, as Emma Little Pengelly, trade spokesperson for the DUP pointed out, there were examples of these technologies being used in Ireland earlier: ‘for the past 15 years there’s been a number plate recognition near the border at Drogheda to pay for the tolls going across that major route. It’s also monitored for smuggling because of duty differentials for things like alcohol and cigarettes,’ Frank Dunsmuir added: ‘There are many examples around the world where traders and logistics organisations provide their information in return for a ‘fast track’ service through a border.’ There was, however, one crucial difference: whereas individual elements of the plan had previously been used to make hard borders quicker and more efficient, this would be the first time they’ve been used together - and instead of traditional border infrastructure.

It comes at a time when Britain is already looking to boost its use of border technology. As Frank Dunsmuir explained, ‘There is stiff competition from Rotterdam and Hamburg in terms of using technology to improve ports and borders.’ Richard Ballantyne, who heads the British Ports Association, outlined how the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union had helped goods entering or leaving Britain by boat to move as freely as possible, enabling ports to speed-up processes at many of the UK’s ‘roll-on, roll-off’ ports such as at Dover, Holyhead, Immingham and Portsmouth - where trucks and lorries drive directly onto cargo ferries. ‘At the moment, vehicles travelling to and from the EU are subject to immigration controls as we are outside Schengen, however they are not routinely checked for customs purposes unless criminal activity is suspected,’ he said.

Nusrat Ghani, the transport minister, discussed how this has been done: ‘I think that Brexit has been very challenging for our ports but they have actually risen to the challenge.’ Like airlines, ports are held legally responsible for any security issues. ‘If there is an illegal immigrant on a ferry arriving into Britain and the UK Border Force discover that person, the carrier is usually liable to return that person if they are not supposed to be there’, said Richard Ballantyne.

Richard also pointed out that UK ports are in competition and typically owned by different bodies or companies: ‘One of the consequences of that is that you don’t have a centralised government strategy dictating how ports implement these technologies are used at the border,’ he said. ‘At the Irish border and on the Irish Sea you’ve got the additional advantage of being in the Common Travel Area which rules out the need for immigration checks. In the context of Brexit therefore you’re potentially just looking at freight for customs purposes, rather than people.’

Such technologies also make our borders more secure. Ben Wallace, a Home Office minister (since promoted to Defence Secretary by Boris Johnson), explained how they helped clamp down on everything from contraband to people smuggling. ‘If you’re looking for the needle in a haystack, the best way is to move the haystack - when it comes to people landing at British airports, we use all available data to pre-clear the 99.9% of travellers coming here lawfully, and then allow our agents to focus on the remainder.’

Even with the right technology in place, would the UK and Ireland have the political will to make the Drive Through Border work? Lars Karlsson said that such a border would require much more data-sharing and cooperation that currently happens between the two countries. The point was raised that this might be improved by the creation of a single government department for border security - a responsibility currently shared between the Treasury and the Home Office. Singapore, a country widely regarded as a world leader in border technology, has been praised for its‘single window’ border programme, under which traders submit all documentation (customs declarations, certificates of origin etc) to one digital platform.

It’s the political cooperation between London and Dublin that would, for example, allow for the fast-tracking of ‘trusted traders’ - making sure that those small businesses which routinely crossed between the two countries to do so with as little disruption as possible. Ben Wallace summarised the situation: ‘We’re trying to ensure that there’s no physical infrastructure at the border, and no related checks and controls at the border. We’re not trying to have a situation where there are no checks and no controls in Northern Ireland at all because the only way to do that is for Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union and the single market.’

For many smaller traders, there was no distinction between the countries. ‘If you want to have a pig slaughtered and prepared, there’s only one place on the whole island to do that,’ explained Ben Wallace. Over 400,000 pigs a year are currently exported from Ireland for processing in Northern Ireland. ‘The government needs to be upfront that there will inevitably be some disruption to business.’ Smaller businesses would likely have to register their cargo on a smartphone app. Emma Little Pengelly, trade spokesperson for the Brexit-supporting Democratic Unionist Party, suggested that the smallest traders could be fast-tracked on the basis of assumed trust (in much the same way that smaller businesses are excluded from some VAT checks). Companies with fewer than 10 employees currently account for 33% of Irish exports to Northern Ireland. ‘You’ve also got the very specific issue of sanitation checks on food and agriculture on the border. These things are all part of the union customs code,’ explained Ben Wallace.

And what about larger companies - after all, Guinness alone is estimated to account for 13,000 border crossings each year. And authorities estimate that around 100 large companies operate similarly. ‘On the US/Canada border, those kind of companies registered as trusted traders. They don’t deal with customers at all - it’s purely self-assessment,’ said Ben Wallace.

But is it realistic to expect the Irish government to play ball on such a scheme, given the current state of UK/Ireland relations - and the Taoiseach's hardline approach to Brexit? ‘The UK has always had a very facilitative approach to its customs systems – in much the same way as Canada and the United States, whereas many EU countries are rather like Japan and France which are much more closed in the way they deal with their customs and ports,’ said Robert Jenrick, a minister in the Treasury (since promoted to Housing Secretary in the reshuffle).

Ben Wallace - who served in Northern Ireland - suggested it was time for a more grown-up approach from both sides: the UK government for its part should be clear that Brexit - in whatever form it might take - would inevitably involve some disruption to the Irish economy (in his words, Brexit would be a ‘lose/lose situation’ for Ireland), given 12% of its exports currently went to the UK. Shanker Singham, trade expert with the IEA think tank, suggested that Downing Street might consider incentivising Ireland to cooperate through a direct payment (an idea previously mooted during the Conservative leadership contest).

Finally, the discussion turned to those perennial questions: costs and timings. ‘I would say it would take between two and three years to have the system up and running,’ said Lars Karlsson. There was skepticism, too, towards the reported costs: £20bn being the cost given by HMRC’s chief civil servant during a grilling from the Treasury select committee). ‘I think he was counting on the spot,’ said Lars Karlsson. ‘And it also assumes we’d handle the exports and imports in the same way as we’ve done for 30 or 40 years – with paper documents and the cost of that. My point is that we don’t have to do that: we’re designing a new system.’ So how much would it actually cost? As a total cost for all stakeholders involved probably less than half of that,’ said Lars - ‘in addition having in mind that UK companies also pay for EU trade through the membership fee’.

Boris Johnson has repeatedly stressed that the October deadline is ‘do or die’ for Brexit. Downing Street has ramped up its planning for no-deal Brexit - making solving the Irish border (and protecting the Union) one of its biggest priorities. The hard work beigns now.