Border lines blurred by new technology

Posted By: September 29, 2016

Newton Emerson.Irish News (Belfast). Thursday, September 29, 2016

The British government has discussed using drones to patrol a post-Brexit Irish border, in order to comply with the EU customs union.

This is according to former Labour leader Ed Miliband, who denounced the idea as “ridiculous”. However, it fits in with proposals already made by the Irish government. Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said customs posts need not be physical structures on the border but just software in company offices, anywhere in the UK or Ireland.

In August, it was reported that Irish revenue officials were discussing a so-called ‘electronic border’ with their British counterparts.

Anthony Buckley, deputy director general of Irish Customs, said, “a truck should be able to drive from Cork to Belfast or from Holyhead to Galway, without stopping.”

The truck’s documentation will follow it through a network of computers and roadside cameras, which Buckley estimated will take two or three years to build.

Brexit has been seen as a retrenching of partition but it could also accelerate a technological blurring of the border. By the time the UK and Ireland have re-integrated their customs and immigration systems, as they seem set to do, the main difference from today could be the psychological impact of science fiction gadgetry.

Suppose one of Mr Buckley’s trucks sets out from Cork to Belfast without filing the correct online paperwork. A camera detects the vehicle passing Drogheda, computers in London and Dublin confirm a problem, a drone over Newry follows it up the A1 and either the PSNI stops it at Lisburn or a fine is deducted from the haulier’s head office, let’s say in Nottingham.

Where is the border? Or rather, given that the border will be where it always was, where and by whom does the truck driver feel he was caught?

Apart from the drone, this scenario is already here. Cross the border without paying the southern motorway toll and the letter you will receive in the north comes via a camera on the Boyne and computers in Dublin, Coleraine, and Swansea, exchanging information under a 2014 deal between the British and Irish governments.

When that letter lands on your doorstep, do you think of it as a cross-border fine at all?

It is how people feel that matters because there is no legal or practical inevitability about Brexit damaging the peace process. This does not mean nationalist concerns about a hard border are invalid but they are mainly a case of perception creating political reality – and perceptions of the border are increasingly more of a software than a hardware problem.

That great republican thinker Barry McElduff has been fighting this corner for years. The Sinn Féin MLA makes regular complaints about information technology insulting his sense of national identity – whether it be phones, satnavs, computers or televisions insisting he is not in Ireland, or online forms and websites requiring him to state he is British.

All of this can be readily fixed to accommodate every individual’s preference, allowing each of us to float around in a perceptual bubble of micro-nationhood. If that happened in Northern Ireland, to what extent would we be assuaged – and how far could it go? Could people in a single jurisdiction choose which government to pay their taxes to, for example, or which legislature to vote for? As soon as such things are done online, changing how they are done becomes easy to do and so easy to imagine that transformation is as expected as an automatic update.

Over the next decade, the EU needs to relieve pressures on the single currency and the Schengen common travel area. Internal electronic borders are a likely solution. There could be a northern and southern euro, but with information technology reducing transaction costs to effectively zero – pay in either currency anywhere. There could be western and eastern Schengen zones, but with visas for both on everyone’s national identity card – travel in either direction without a passport.

Misjudging this technological tide has been one of the EU’s biggest mistakes. As Brussels was working towards a single currency, computers were making it possible to exploit the advantages of multiple currencies. Economists were fascinated by the idea and there was a brief fashion for local exchange trading systems but the euro zone pressed on with its simplistic political mega-project, unable to imagine any other kind of unity but one size fits all.

The future will be nimbler and a lot more complicated. We could be on the frontier of it in more ways than one.