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Brexit: The Irish Border. A Problem of Politics Not Policing

By James Maclaren, Nov 29 2017 11:25AM

The Brexit debate has been injected with some Irish blarney as the stakes for arrangements concerning the three hundred mile land border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are raised. Dublin knows its moment of influence is passing. If a decision is made in December to move the Brexit negotiations to Phase 2, discussion on future UK and EU trade arrangements, then it may be left trailing in the wake of negotiations where its vital economic relationship with the UK slips down the negotiating agenda. Aside from fears for its own economic well-being Dublin knows that treaty arrangements for monitoring an external EU border falls to itself, the cost and organisation of which it would prefer to avoid.

The Dublin tactic to raise the stakes have been initiated with spark by Leo Varadkar, whose comments incensed, with probable intention, the pro-Brexit DUP and many in the UK’s Conservative Party who considered the intervention lacking in gratitude from a country that preferred the UK for a 10 billion sterling loan during its economic crisis rather than the EU. The Irish Government demand, pressed with the solidarity of the EU, for single regulatory arrangements across the Island of Ireland is tantamount to remaining in the EU’s single market and customs union. The Irish side has attempted to fold in the widest aspects of the Good Friday Agreement to justify this position, suggesting the economic pillar to this agreement can only be fulfilled with cross-border engagement that relies upon operation of the single market, or something akin to it.

Is this true? To a point. There is no doubt that some aspects of cross-border cooperation will have to be adjusted to reflect new circumstances.

But there is wide belief that the dangers are being exaggerated to brighten the Irish side of the argument. One of the areas where exaggeration is suspected rests with nature of border controls in a post-Brexit Irish future. Certainly no one wants to return to the security dominated structures and operations which characterised the border during the time of the troubles. From the army’s small forts dominating routes into County Londonderry, explosive cratering of the Fermanagh country lanes to the helicopter and watch tower suppression of the dangerous terrorist country of South Armagh, cross border access was dominated by a massive security effort. But while some will attempt to resurrect this spectre of militarisation, in truth there is no comparison. The problem is one of trade not security. The ability of dissident republicans to generate a terrorist campaign is feeble by the standards of the Troubles and the cores aspects of the Good Friday Agreement are not seriously threatened.

This worrying picture of a return to a hard border is a fallacious one designed to generate uncertainty and fear. But that aside it confuses the debate and misrepresents what constitutes a hard or soft border. Is a hard border one defined by the level of infrastructure, or the levels of tariffs that must be exchanged as a result of whatever trading framework emerges? This is where the recent statements by Dr Liam Fox bring an uncomfortable truth for the EU to contemplate and go a long way to undermining the Irish position. How can the nature and extent of border control be determined until the nature of the economic and trade situation to be controlled is agreed? It cannot. This fundamental weakness in the EU negotiating strategy seemingly overlooked by a media more interested in UK Government division goes for the most part unchallenged.

The British approach has been to propose governing principles which they set out in a Paper in September 2017. This was much criticised for an absence of detail. Yet without the regulatory understanding that can only be brought forward with a trade agreement how can such detail be defined? The UK Government pointed to the technology that would be available to monitor whatever level of trade arrangement was finally decided and offered to lean into the operational problem with technology investment. Some might judge this generous, given that the widespread economic view that the presence of a very large, low tax, global trading economy on the border of the EU presents the regulatory and monitoring problem to the EU and Ireland.

Moving cross-border trade including consignment data and payment into an online environment would allow the operational movement of trade across the border to remain unaffected. Pre-notification and payment in this day of computer and online service technology may not be welcome to some, but in the context of the national decision to leave the EU is certainly viable. The volume and nature of cross border trade between the ROI and the North is unlikely to cause undue stress to any systems of control and enforcement. Alongside such a system the current Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland known as the CTA is able to continue unaffected. The future political and economic circumstances do not deny access for people to the UK, but will control employment. This is a matter for immigration policy with limited impact upon border controls.

A 21st Century approach to a revised economic relationship.

Is such a system watertight? Probably not. But the level of abuse is likely to be relatively insignificant and probably focussed on the local north south economies. Anyone with any knowledge of the border history knows that cross-border smuggling was just the way of the world. In places like Dundalk, Carrickmacross and Crossmaglen the view on the single market is that of a local benefit denied. Distant politicians knew better than to interfere with imposing the details of treaties on these border communities.

Of course, cross border trade will need some regulation and enforcement – but physically on the border itself? Probably not.

Let’s return to the security problem posed to security officials attempting to prevent or interdict the transit of IRA terrorists from their safe havens in the ROI and into the North. Many years ago, I completed a road, terrain and waterways analysis of the border between the ROI and Northern Ireland. It was not the first such study but it set the way for a technology based denial of terrorist ingress to Northern Ireland. In the current debate people point to the porous border poorly defined with over three hundred recognised crossing places. In truth, very few of these are suitable for the sustained cross border transit of HGV transported goods. Cost, time and poor access alone will prevent the use of a web of country lanes in any case further into the North and South they serve only to join up with the main arterial routes that make up the major road network connecting centres of commerce. The confluence of roads, waterways, bridges and junctions mean that the monitoring of trade can be undertaken with remarkable accuracy based upon a relatively few number of locations – none of them near the border. This approach allowed the mostly effective combatting of cross-border terrorism. The principle would work just as effectively for understanding and monitoring trade ingress and egress. Throughout the duration of the Troubles major authorised road trade cross border routes operated without significant impediment.

And the technology to facilitate this exists.

Developments in ANPR, CCTV supplemented by mobile DVLA and customs enforcement allows road transport movement to be pretty much reconciled with authorised cross-border trade. ANPR technology was pioneered in the UK and was deployed first in Northern Ireland nearly two decades ago. If it could frustrate the intricately planned and meticulously conducted operations of determined terrorists, the improved systems of today can comfortably cope with the regulation of road trade flows.

And it is done elsewhere.

Norway and Sweden have a porous border with the lightest of touches on operational control of the frontier. But they are both in the single market I hear the detractors cry, it’s not the same.

But it is.

The technology has no interest in whether it is being asked to monitor trade relations between single market members or across the Latvian border with Belarus. It just provides the data to the questions it is asked. The use of technology to control and monitor trade between the ROI and Northern Ireland is a powerful and credible enabler which is poorly understood or misrepresented.

The arguments being deployed by the EU and the ROI are largely synthetic. They understand well that the operational problem of monitoring a border with a non-EU nation rests with themselves. The current judiciously timed Irish intervention appears to be one to gain political advantage and wider influence over all-Ireland policy. The DUP understand this, the UK Government quietly recognise it. Whether they will seriously challenge it is a probably a matter for wider Brexit negotiation.

Not for the first time the Irish are being asked to do their part in controlling a border they have been historically reluctant to do. This time they may not avoid the responsibility.

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