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The Irish Border issue still remains unclear

Posted by Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz (Admin) 2 weeks ago

 On the 10th of November Michel Barnier demanded that the UK needed to show significant   progress on three of the main negotiation issues by December 2017 - rights of UK and EU   citizens, the Brexit bill Britain will have to pay, and the Northern Ireland border. The   negotiations have faced challenges, with the UK and the EU believing the UK ‘wants to have   the cake and eat it too’, as it is being too fanciful with what it can have. The Northern Ireland   border issue adds a complexity to the negotiations, write Ellie Couchman, Alice Steward,   and Isabel Flanagan.

On the one hand, post-Brexit there is a need for a ‘hard border’ with physical checkpoint and barriers in Ireland to control the flow of goods and people from the EU’s free movement area over the only land border to Britain who will have removed itself from the EU. On the other hand, the introduction of a ‘hard border’ separating Ireland and Northern Ireland which is politically unthinkable. With the history of ‘The Troubles’ politicians worry that the rising tensions could lead to a return of ethnic violence in Ireland. Leo Varadkar has requested a formal guarantee that there will be no hard border, without which he will block Brexit negotiations in December. However, there are some suggestions to invoke an ‘invisible border’ which may offer a middle ground between a hard and soft Brexit border. 

This ‘invisible border’ is better understood as a technological border. On the 16th of August, the UK government published its position paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland - one of three key issues the EU has made a priority. The position paper states that it wants to “[avoid] a hard border” and that the solution will be both political and technical, but fails to mention what kind of “technical solution” we’re looking at. In the process of taking back control, are we inadvertently just handing it over to Big Brother? As Millennials, giving away our data is standard. After downloading an app a simple tap gives companies access to our contacts, our microphone, our location and camera. We’re barely even fazed by stories of targeted adverts on one website being picked up by another app. We’ve come of age with technology, and data hacks are a somewhat inevitable fact of life. But are we really aware of all the risks of so much surveillance? 

Whilst there hasn’t been a clear breakdown by the UK Government of what technology will be used at the border, there has been great speculation by government officials and technology experts. The most discussed options have included CCTV, drone patrols and number plate and facial recognition. The use of CCTV would allow border movements to be captured and give the police the authority to be alerted if known suspects were crossing the border. This would let both Ireland and Northern Ireland to have control on criminals entering and leaving each country. On the other hand, drones would enable larger amounts of land to be under surveillance, alerting border authorities of human movement. An example of drones being used for border control can be seen between the USA and Mexico. Meanwhile, number plate and facial recognition would allow the authorities to track each individual that crosses the border. The use of number plate recognition on a border is already used between Norway and Sweden.

However, the political reaction to this technological solution has been mixed. British Prime Minister continues to declare that the UK does not want a hard border in Ireland. In her Florence Speech, on September 22nd, May reaffirmed the government's commitment to upholding the Good Friday agreement and the Common Travel Area in Ireland. The government's position to use technology, as a replacement for a hard border, has been supported by other external actors. For one, there is the Swiss, who use a similar type of system to guard their own border, advised the UK government that the technological solution is a way of avoiding placing boots on the ground at the border. Then there is the think tank Legatum Institute which views the use of technology as the most effective way to man the border, supporting the use of cameras and license plate tracking over the border.

However, there are other onlookers who suggest that the government's invisible border is nothing more than a utopian dream. The Customs and revenue’s office has released a statement saying that an “open border is not possible from a customs perspective, and it would be naive to believe a unique arrangement can be found.” They point out the infrastructural difficulties with establishing an open border, but also pointing out that creating any type of system for the Irish border will take longer than the two years which the government has for the initial Brexit negotiations. The EU is another actor which is critical of the government's plans. While the EU seemed supportive of May’s position, that there was to be no hard border in Ireland, they believe that the UK is responsible for finding a credible solution for the Irish border problem. The EU believe that the suggestion for an invisible border based on technology is “hopelessly utopian and unfeasible,” and they are worried that such a system could be manipulated by smugglers and criminals. Former Northern Ireland and Wales Secretary, Mr Hain, had a similar critique “what I see in the UK’s paper on Ireland and Northern Ireland worries me. Creativity and flexibility can’t be at the expense of the integrity of the Single Market and Customs Union. This would not be fair for Ireland and it would not be fair for the European Union.”

The Irish Border issue still remains unclear. The technological solution which the government presented in their position did nothing except complicate the issue more. Technology is not a ‘third way’ solution between the soft and hard boarder of options, rather it raises the question - is a technological border even possible? There are issues about timeline, feasibility, and criminals. However, in some ways these critiques have glossed over a central issue at the heart of the debate: do we really want the government to be using technology to track movement along the Irish border? Us millennials are so used to divulging our information, but we should stop a moment and reflect on the consequences of this gathering of data. Is the government simply replacing the Irish border with a big brother? With the December deadline fast approaching, perhaps we will find the answer to this complex issue…

By Ellie Couchman, Alice Steward, Isabel Flanagan

This post was edited on Nov 24, 2017 by Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz

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