Technology can't prevent hard border in Ireland if Brexit means customs controls, firms told
The woman charged by Theresa May with planning how the UK's borders will operate after Brexit has told businesses here that there is no magic technological solution for preventing a hard border in Ireland.
Karen Wheeler, who heads the UK Border Delivery Group, addressed hundreds of businesses at a Brexit advice conference in Titanic Belfast yesterday.
The senior HMRC official, whose role involves operational planning, said the political tension around the issue had resulted in the group not initiating detailed work on the Irish border until last July.
"We came late to the party in Northern Ireland, not because Government wasn't worrying about what was happening in Northern Ireland, but because the solutions were being handled and looked at in a political space rather than a technical, practical or operational space," she explained.
The civil servant also appeared to extinguish the notion propogated by some Brexiteers that the key to a frictionless border lay with technology.
"There is no technology solution which would mean that you could do customs controls and processes and not have a hard border," she told the audience.
"There is no magic solution that would make that go away. If there was, trust me, we would have found it."
She said while there is technology that can provide for a certain level of automated customs processing or tracking goods, she added: "They are not all instantly available.
"Many of them would take years to implement and there is no border in the world which has a full package of all of these technologies."
She also said the Government would not invest significant sums in technology without a clear picture of long-term arrangements for the border.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Ms Wheeler said: "If there was a package of technology solutions that you could implement today, or even in the next few months, that enabled customs controls and processes and not have a hard border, we would absolutely be on it, because everybody is looking for that solution.
"There are of course lots of technologies which can help make it more efficient, Norway and Sweden for example have a lot of traffic going across their land border and they are one of the more technologically advanced land borders, they still have queues and people still stop because there are still things to go through.
"There is no such thing in the world at the moment at a land border which doesn't have queues and processes and technologies.
"It may be that over a number of years more of those technologies will emerge. But some of those things are quite hard to avoid."
Asked what beyond revoking Article 50 could provide for a frictionless border, Ms Wheeler replied: "What you need is, at the very least, something that looks like a customs union, plus something that looks like a single market, which has no customs or tariffs or regulatory standards or controls, if you are going to have completely free movement of goods across the border."
Yesterday's conference, organised by the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors, InterTradeIreland, Invest NI and the NI Chamber, found that 48% of the businesses in attendance had postponed investment decisions as a result of Brexit.
Almost three-quarters of attendees (73%) cited customs and tariffs as potentially the greatest challenge to their business, followed by supply chain/logistics (51%), VAT/tax (31%), and employment/people (28%).