The options for a technological solution to a post-Brexit Irish Border don’t look promising

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez April 17, 2019
Summary:
A presentation seen by Sky News that was presented to the Home Office suggests that whilst a technology solution is there, in reality a frictionless border is 10 years away.

Brexit

A Home Office presentation, seen by Sky News and shared on Twitter, will be considered a huge blow to Brexiteers that have been claiming the Irish border problem isn’t really a problem at all, thanks to the wonders of technology.

However, according to the slides, a frictionless border in Ireland enabled by technology is likely at least a decade away, will be hugely expensive, will require the involvement of 28 government agencies, and currently isn’t being done anywhere else in the world at this present time.

The UK is set to exit the European Union by the end of October (according to current deadlines, but as we know, these are apparently very flexible). The government originally put forward two options for a post-Brexit UK-EU customs relationship. The first being the ‘Max Fac’ solution, which aims to decrease the need to check goods at the border by implementing technological tools - the preferred solution of Brexiteers that want a clean break with the EU. The second being a ‘New Customs Partnership’ with the EU, which would see the UK charge two different sets of tariffs on imports, depending on whether goods were destined for the UK or the EU market. This latter option would include the UK collecting revenue on behalf of the EU, eliminating the need for a border for goods.

Whether or not these two options stand remains to be seen and will likely depend on the outcome of the cross-party talks currently being carried out by the Government and the opposition party, Labour.

The Irish border has proven to be a key sticking point in the Brexit debacle, given the importance of maintaining stability in Ireland and upholding the Good Friday Agreement.

However, if the ‘Max Fac’ option was still on the table, the Home Office slides paint a rather dreary picture about its feasibility.

What does the presentation propose?

The Home Office slides lay out what a possible technology solution for the Irish border could look like, pulling out every technology buzzword in the process.

For example, it states that:

  • A company would upload data into a digital portal. Blockchain then “allows goods within the same shipment to be in different virtual economic zones”.
  • Sensors and “other IoT technology” would “ensure physical integrity of the goods and yield other logistics data”.
  • Machine learning tools would then yield “risk profile based on goods, route, driver and company profile as well as external factors”. This could be updated in real time “taking data from sensors and portal”.
  • Revenue collection would be automated.

The presentation states that this proposes the “art of the possible”. If further steps were to be taken, it suggests that key departments go out to market to develop a proof of concept for the solution and then challenge technology firms (specifically referencing Google and IBM) to work up a “feasible proof of concept”.

The challenges

However, although the document states that the solution is possible, it also highlights a number of significant challenges and says these “can not be underestimated”. The challenges include:

  • No government worldwide currently controls different customs arrangements with no physical infrastructure present at the border
  • Realisation for a similar technological solution in the UK is 2030
  • Any future system must operate with 28 government agencies and a “myriad” of interconnected existing and planned IT systems
  • There is currently no budget for either a pilot or the programme itself. And it will be expensive.
  • The technology would need to operate on both sides of the border, as such it would require agreement and commitment from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and possibly the EU too.

It goes on to add that “it is a big and complex project, with possibly tight deadlines...government does not have the strongest track record on delivery of large tech projects”.

My take

A disaster waiting to happen.