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Brexit: the demo and the reality

IT industry should make it clear whether the “technological solutions” being bandied about by politicians to solve the Irish border problem are realistic

Many, many years ago, when I was starting out in the writing-about-IT business, there was a joke that went as follows:

Two Microsoft customers and Bill Gates get into a lift and it goes up two floors. When the door opens, the customers are led into a rainbow-coloured land where milk and honey flow, a land populated by unicorns and smiling angels and cherubs. They are soothed by the angelic sound of a heavenly choir. “Truly this is beautiful,” they think to themselves. Turning to Gates, they say: “We’ll take it.”

They get back into the lift and it goes down a couple of floors. When the doors open, they are confronted by a charred hellscape where fire and excrement flow, populated by devils roasting people on spits, rats and cockroaches scurrying around their feet, and the air is rent with the agonised screams of tortured souls.

“What is this?” they ask Gates. “What happened to the beautiful world you showed us?”

“Ah,” replies Gates. “That was the demo.”

I am reminded of this because it seems as good a parallel as any with the current contortions around Brexit. Three years ago, people were promised sunlit uplands, a world where Britannia, sovereignty restored and freed from the yoke of EU oppression, would set sail upon the waters of the world armed with a plethora of fantastic trade deals, blue passports and the promise of unbroken prosperity.

Now, even the most optimistic supporters of Brexit are reduced to admitting that it will cause a recession, many people will lose their jobs and it could break up the union. It’s a long way from the demo to the reality.

I can’t help feeling something similar is going to happen with the “technological solutions” to the Irish border issue. Yet again, the Brexit faction promises an easy fix to what is an intractable problem.

In this context, I believe there is an irresponsible attitude – an arrogance, even – among some in the IT community that technology really can solve any problem. I have no doubt that there are IT companies behind the scenes advocating for technology that they believe will help to address the Irish border problem. Which is in keeping with the minority of technology businesses that insist on talking about Brexit as “an opportunity”.

But do they truly believe technology can fix the Irish border? What radical new solution does it bring to the problem? Right now, there is no problem. People and goods flow freely across the border. This state of affairs exists because politicians and people were prepared to negotiate and adopt their views and beliefs to arrive at a solution that the vast majority of those in Ireland and Northern Ireland could support.

What role can technology play in enabling this normality to persist if Brexit, in whatever form it eventually takes, goes ahead? Is it really that easy to just assume that technology can protect something it took people decades of struggle, blood and death to achieve?

We all know that IT is great at selling its “future capabilities” to customers and governments, but shouldn’t it bear a greater responsibility to ensure that the “technological solutions” being airily bandied about by pro-Brexit politicians are realistic? After all, we are talking about IT being advanced as a cure-all to what is a potentially a life-and-death situation. Does it really serve the IT industry’s purpose to be portrayed as the potential saviour of the Good Friday Agreement?

What happens if it fails? If the technological solution is nowhere near as good as the demo? As someone who lives close to that border and crosses it fairly regularly, the one thing I do know is that no one will be laughing.

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