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Tech won’t solve Brexit UK-Ireland border challenges, say MPs

There is no evidence of any technical solution “anywhere in the world” that would help avoid physical infrastructure at the UK-Ireland border post-Brexit, according to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Despite the government being confident that technology can ensure a “non-visible” UK-Ireland border after Brexit, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is unable to find any current border technology that could avoid physical infrastructure.

A report by the committee examining whether it would be possible to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland when the UK leaves the EU Single Market and the Customs Union found that little progress has been made to find a solution.

It said that although the government claims technology can solve the border problem, it has found no evidence that this is the case.

“We heard numerous proposals for how regulatory and customs compliance measures could be enacted away from the border using tools such as joint policing, mobile patrols, risk analysis, cameras and digital customs declarations,” the report said.

“We have, however, had no visibility of any technical solutions, anywhere in the world, beyond the aspirational, that would remove the need for physical infrastructure at the border.”

The government has promised a “frictionless” border between the UK and Ireland post-Brexit, but exactly how this will work is still unclear. The report said the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, David Davis, has said he is “confident that ‘the most up-to-date technology’ can ensure the border remains non-visible and as light-touch as it is today”.

But the committee said that from the evidence it has seen, technology can assist in border management, but “is best seen as an aid to, rather than a substitute for, manual, visible and physical border management”.

It pointed out that on the Sweden-Norway border, where a fully electronic system helps to share information across the two countries, they are still having to stop people and X-ray trucks.

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Committee chair Andrew Murrison said Brexit’s success hinges on the Irish border. “Everyone agrees that the border after Brexit must look and feel as it does today,” he said.

“However, we have heard no evidence to suggest that there is currently a technical solution that would avoid infrastructure at the border. Furthermore, we have no detail on how checks on goods and people will be undertaken away from the border.”

Prime minister Theresa May has suggested a two-year implementation period post-Brexit to plan and initiate changes.

Because it has seen “no evidence to suggest that, right now, an invisible border is possible”, the committee has called on the government to ensure that the implementation period is used to develop the right solutions.

“The government’s proposals for technical solutions represent blue sky thinking, but it will not have time to implement anything substantial before withdrawal day,” the committee’s report said.

“During the implementation period, we recommend that the government works closely with its counterparts in Ireland and the EU to develop an innovative border system capable of delivering customs compliance without traditional physical infrastructure at the border.”

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