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'Virtual border' between Northern Ireland and Republic a possibility

By Niall O'Connor

Published 27/07/2016

Prime Minister Theresa May with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Downing Street yesterday
Prime Minister Theresa May with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Downing Street yesterday
Prime Minister Theresa May with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Downing Street yesterday

A virtual border using technology could be the solution to maintaining an open flow of people between Northern Ireland and the Republic, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said.

After his first meeting with new Prime Minister Theresa May, Mr Kenny ruled out the possibility of a hard border in the strongest terms yet.

“I would not agree to a hard border with a whole range of customs posts and neither does the prime minister,” he said outside Downing Street.

“There are other ways of dealing with modern technology in terms of checking trade,” the Taoiseach added.

Mr Kenny has indicated that he was open to exploring models such as those implemented in Canada, whereby vehicles’ registration plates are screened automatically as they approached a border. “Yes, I think these are things that need to be looked at creatively and imaginatively. But we are both agreed very firmly that there will be no return to a hard border as existed previously,” he said.

His comments came as reports in London last night suggested that Mrs May and chancellor Philip Hammond have yet to be convinced that the advantages of leaving the customs union would be offset by the liberty to negotiate it would bring.

Trade Secretary Liam Fox is pushing for the UK to cut free from the agreement which ensures there are no tariffs on goods. Such a move is likely to add “significant” administrative costs and delays to trade crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic

Meanwhile, Ms May continued to avoid the use of the phrase ‘hard border’ when discussing her meeting with the Taoiseach but emphasised the need to “preserve” the common travel area and secure “a deal that is in the interests of both of us”.

“Alongside this, we should continue our efforts to strengthen the external borders of the Common Travel Area; for example, through a common approach to the use of passenger data,” she said.

This would suggest it could become more difficult for people outside the UK and Ireland to travel to the Common Travel Area, if new agreements were reached surrounding tougher borders. But any such move would likely be met with strong resistance from the EU. Mr Kenny insisted he has secured full agreement with the Prime Minister about the border issue as he moved to dampen concerns about the prospect of checkpoints being re-erected.

“A hard border, in normal circumstances, means customs posts and customs checks on a very regular basis. There will be no return to the hard border of the past.

“The hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland in the past included towers, obviously military equipment for many reasons,” Mr Kenny said.

The Taoiseach twice dodged questions about the prospect of a united Ireland.

Asked specifically whether he would like to see a 32-county Republic in his lifetime, Mr Kenny hesitated, before replying: “My focus today is on confirming that there will not be a return to a hard border, by that I mean customs posts all along the way.

“Obviously, the Prime Minister favours that very strongly with me. So we both agree – no return to a hard border.”

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