Belfast Telegraph

Smart border can work, say men who had Stormont role

By Staff Reporter

Two key players in the early days of the Stormont Assembly have said mobile phone technology could provide a solution to the Irish border problem.

Former Irish diplomat Ray Bassett and Dr Graham Gudgin - a former advisor to Lord Trimble when he was first minister - have claimed that the so-called 'Max Fac option' should be pursued by the UK Government.

In a paper for right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, they argue that the UK can leave the single market and customs union while preserving a frictionless border in Ireland.

They argue that this can be achieved by the use of new technology and in the context of a Free Trade Agreement between the UK and EU, in an arrangement that goes beyond the Customs Partnership and does not threaten the Good Friday Agreement.

The report argues that technology such as mobile phone and GPS technology can track lorries carrying goods, together with the computer-based customs clearing.

The report also urges the Irish government to co-operate with the UK in devising a border without physical infrastructure.

In a foreword to the report in his first major intervention on the question, Lord Trimble wrote: "Fears over a 'hard border' are only as strong as the refusal of those who do not engage with a workable technological solution.

"Anyone interested in the welfare of the people of Northern Ireland, and indeed the welfare of those in the Republic and EU, should be urging Brussels to seek a free trade agreement with the UK and develop a smart border process.

"Thirty years ago, we found that where there was a will to succeed, to build something better, all obstacles could be overcome."

Mr Bassett retired from the Republic's Department of Foreign Affairs in 2016 after 39 years of service.

He has been critical of the Irish government's approach to the Brexit negotiations, urging Dublin to work more closely with London. Dr Gudgin said that the arguments which have taken hold - that Brexit endangers peace or undermines the Good Friday Agreement - will not happen.

"A solution that respects the Brexit referendum and maintains a light-touch border is achievable," he said.

"Modern technology means that physical customs posts, or even cameras, are no longer essential at borders. This is the case made by the EU's own customs expert, Lars Karlsson, who envisages the use of mobile phone and GPS technology to track HGVs, together with the computer-based customs clearing which is the norm across much of the world.

"The Irish government is playing a dangerous game by demanding that Northern Ireland remains within the EU Customs Union and by threatening vetoes.

"Ireland, more than any EU economy, needs free trade with the UK but has made no efforts to promote such an agreement in Brussels. The priority now should be for the British and Irish sides to return to the co-operative approach last seen under Leo Varadkar's predecessor, Enda Kenny."

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