Practical and technical solutions can resolve the questions about the Irish border

Practical and technical solutions can resolve the questions about the Irish border

The recent St Patrick’s Day celebrations (alongside the Irish rugby Grand Slam!) acted as an ever-present reminder of just how closely bound the British and Irish people are – a bond too often overlooked by Brussels.

With the importance being placed on the Irish border issue in the EU negotiations and at yesterday’s Council, anyone would have thought the border between the North and South of Ireland was a similar size to the one between the 335 million citizens of the USA and the 35 million of Canada. This was a border the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar was keen to visit recently and examine for evidence.

But the population of the whole of the island of Ireland is only around six and a half million, and the flow of lorries and vans across the Irish border equates in one whole year to less than three day’s flow on the M25 motorway, and is mostly local.

Logically, the issue of the border breaks down into people (immigration) and goods (customs). Opponents tweet photos of queues of cars claiming this is what would happen in Ireland, totally ignoring the fact the Common Travel Area (CTA) between the UK, Ireland, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands means no such border immigration checks take place.

Indeed, people is basically sorted: that Common Travel Area has existed harmoniously on the island of Ireland since 1923, and every negotiating party wants it to continue.

As for a customs border for goods, the island of Ireland already has many seamless and invisible borders: for VAT, excise duties, corporation tax and, fundamentally, for a currency: the euro to the South, pound to the North.

Adding a customs border is not a major issue and requires little of the creative imagination, political determination and years of resource the peace process needed.

Having had the great privilege to work on the beginnings of the Good Friday Agreement as Special Advisor to the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, in 1996-97 (standing behind John Major and John Bruton the day the talks started and proposing the original successful means of decommissioning terrorist weapons through self-destruction verified by neutral observers), I remain totally committed to maintaining the peace on the island of Ireland – it has saved 300 plus lives a year for 20 years. It is absolutely right there should be no hard border. But who is asking for one? No one.

The reality is the Irish border issue is being consistently used as a lever to try to force the UK and EU to remain closely aligned: this is the whole point of the option three ‘backstop’ which, if implemented, would effectively wrench Northern Ireland out of the UK, put a border down the Irish Sea, and cause the deal and even the Government to fall. That is totally unacceptable.

Those exploiting the peace accord for political expediency over Brexit – such as grossly exaggerated claims it will bring back violence – are shamelessly using the Irish people of both North and South for their own devious and anti-democratic agenda. These claims verge on incitement.

Their aim is to tie Britain into the EU Single Market and Customs Union; and, failing that, to rule out managed divergence of regulations. The true intent is to tether Britain in a legal straitjacket because, as the BBC’s Katya Adler has reported, Brussels is  “very worried” the UK will become a “super-competitive country” on its doorstep.

What is shameful is that other political parties and UK business organisations have also signed up to this nonsense as gospel: they too have tried to entrap us in the/a Customs Union, selling out global Britain when 90 percent of future global growth will come from outside the EU. Is this Stockholm Syndrome at play?

Last Wednesday I was delighted to be invited to give evidence on the progress of the UK’s negotiations on EU withdrawal to the House of Commons Committee on Exiting the European Union. I was able to refer to my proposed UK-EU free trade agreement model, ‘SuperCanada’, and my think-piece on the Irish border question, A Firm Solution to the Hard Border.

The two are linked as a customs border will exist but will become academic if we have a tariff-free and quota-free deal between the EU and UK, as is being offered already by the EU Council and President Tusk. Customs exist to levy duties, enforce quotas and check on standards. Our laws and Sanitary & Phytosanitary (SPS) standards, such for food or veterinary, are the same now so there will be little need for customs checks.

My Irish border paper seeks to suggest technical ways to solve these issues. Even the EU is requiring its own Customs Code to be 100 percent electronic, and virtually all submissions of the EU’s own Single Administrative Document (SAD) for declaring imports and exports are now made on-line.

I am suggesting a three-tier approach to the challenge based on the former World Customs Director Lars Karlsson’s excellent report Smart Border 2.0 for the EU (he also gave evidence to the Committee).

Karlsson asserts that existing technology and established tried-and-tested practices worldwide are more than capable of permitting a friction-free border, but my paper adds some more ideas. The three tiers are:

Tier 1: Gold Standard treatment: Major Authorised Economic Operators (MAEO) for major commercial operations carrying high volume, low risk traffic. The EU already has an operational AEO scheme with lorries carrying stickers in their windows. A similar system is used on the US/Canadian and Mexican borders entitled Free and Safe Trade (FAST). This involves a number of checks in advance and participants declare their cargoes in advance online. No checks are made at the border.

The existing ‘trusted trader’ scheme works very well alongside: this ensures commercial operators that meet certain standards are given a special status with reduced paperwork, fewer document controls, priority treatment, and reduced delays and inspections. This is again successfully used on the US-Canada border with trucks hardly changing gear.

Tier 2: Silver Standard: A Special Authorised Economic Operators (SpAEO) based too on the existing EU AEO scheme but limited to the island of Ireland. This will be for the majority of participants and be more relaxed and very affordable for the MAEO treatment. Everything would be online and everyone would have their own account.

This scheme would work well for the estimated 80-90 percent of cross border trade in Ireland accounted for by small businesses – SMEs or micro-businesses – which are predominately in agriculture.

Tier 3: Bronze Standard: Pre-arrival Customs Clearance (PACC). This is based on best practice in pre-clearance systems worldwide and is limited to occasional and low-value transactions, and small scale operators in vans. It would all be done online.

The aim would be to make the system no more onerous than making an online application for a credit card or the London congestion charge system where payments can be made in advance or on the following day. The PACC’s aim should be to clear in as little as one hour before travel, a performance standard major countries meet now. The EU Customs Code already provides for the Simplified/Supplemental Declaration procedure for registered businesses.

What is important politically and is relevant to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement is the need to avoid border posts, checks and hard infrastructure on the actual border. The aim must be to ensure the few checks actually needed are done well away from the border.

Helpfully the reality is most borders are in computers these days, a digital record backed by risk analysis and intelligence such as tip-offs on criminal operations. Systems such as Blockchain can cover the complete journey of goods online.

Physical checks are actually very low now in any case: the U.K. has an average of four per cent of goods and containers being checked, whilst Irish checks are the lowest in the world at one per cent – equal only to The Gambia (according to the World Bank).

So the paper suggests customs ‘spot-checks’ are not conducted on the Northern Ireland/Ireland land border, but are done at the major seaports and airports on the island – which is what happens already for immigration checks under the Common Travel Area. Checks for example could be conducted at Belfast, Dublin and Cork seaports and at airports such as Belfast International or Dublin International (already many UK trucks travel via Holyhead to Dublin seaport and use the M1 motorway from there).

In addition, CCTV and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology can be used away from the border – such as on the Irish M1 motorway, Northern Ireland’s A1 or on feeder roads in a non-intrusive way.

If all parties commit, I believe a close to 100 percent ‘smart-border’ is within our grasp. By adhering to the international customs standards already in place and taking best practices from different borders across the world, we can incorporate this into a successful framework tailored to the economic, political and security needs of the Irish border.

Despite the doom-mongers, myths and over-charged political rhetoric, I am more confident than ever that the close bond we enjoy between our two islands will guarantee a workable solution for the Irish border. It is in all our interests that we do this well, and do it quickly.