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Brexiteer fantasy of tech solution to Irish border emerges again

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Video surveillance, artificial intelligence, electronic scanners have all been mooted as potential technological solutions to Brexit’s Irish border problem – all in vain.

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As British Prime Minister Theresa May again travelled to Brussels on February 7 in attempt to break the Brexit logjam, the chimera of a technological solution to keep the Northern Irish/EU border open has been resurrected.

The UK’s Department for Leaving the EU is considering a proposal from Japanese tech firm Fujitsu, which suggests using artificial intelligence to maintain a frictionless frontier, right-wing British tabloid The Sun reported on February 5.

The border issue is, effectively, the main impediment to getting May’s Brexit deal through the House of Commons. In order to guarantee an open border – to which both London and Dublin are legally committed under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the treaty that put an end to decades of sectarian conflict in the province – Brussels’s backstop clause would keep Northern Ireland in the single market and Great Britain in the customs union, until both the UK and EU are satisfied they have found a trade agreement to ensure the border stays open.

Because it would treat two parts of the UK differently and keep the country under EU rules for an indefinite period, the backstop is the bête noir of both Europhobic Conservative party backbenchers and the hardline unionist DUP (the Northern Irish party whose deal with May keeps the Conservatives in power). The EU insists that there is no possibility of revising the backstop.

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May has called on MPs to find “creative solutions”. Fujitsu’s plans would set up a system of satellite tracking and collection of vehicle license plates by video surveillance. The device would collect information on motorists and the routes they take across the border. Artificial intelligence would then analyse this data, cross-referencing it with drivers’ social media posts to see if they are up to anything suspicious.

Freight lorry drivers would be asked to register their goods and pay customs duties online. But technology wouldn’t completely replace customs officers. There would be inspection posts just after the border, where border security staff could search some vehicles on the basis of information provided by the AI system. Fujitsu says it could put this system in place on March 29, the day Britain leaves the EU.

However, according to local paper the Belfast Telegraph, the UK government has rejected the Futjitsu proposal, on the grounds that “we will not consider any proposals that include new border infrastructure in Northern Ireland”. Meanwhile Stephen Farry, leader of the non-sectarian Alliance Party, said the surveillance aspects of the proposed system would be like something out of George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel 1984. Katy Hayward, a professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, pointed out on Twitter that such an approach would “trounce personal privacy and data protection rules” and that surveillance cameras are likely to be hacked, something the Police Service of Northern Ireland has warned about.

The Scandinavian model

The Fujitsu proposal is merely the latest in a series of attempts to find a technological solution to the border question. Thus far, all of these ideas have been rejected. In October 2018, even the pro-Remain chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond chipped in, with the notion of using blockchain (a digital register best known for its use in processing bitcoin transactions) to track goods across the border. Experts quickly pointed out that this kind of technology has never been used for such a purpose and that there is scant evidence of its feasibility.

The border between Sweden (in the EU) and Norway (outside the EU) was also mooted as a model for a border arrangement between the UK and the Irish Republic. The two countries use scanners, a special communication system for Swedish and Norwegian customs officers, and automatic licence plate registration system and flying squads of border police ready to be deployed quickly. Nevertheless, a 2017 British parliamentary report said that it would be too complex and too expensive to mimic that apparatus in Ireland.

For their part, EU Brexit negotiators – starting with their leader, Michel Barnier – have consistently said that the Irish border cannot be solved by relying on technology. Yet the idea that it could save the day reappears again and again from members of the British government. It is as if Brexiteers are turning to the god of technology because they don’t know what deity to turn to.

This article was adapted from the original in French

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