Sir Jeffrey’s cunning border plan

The other day, the Rt Hon Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP suggested on twitter :

A country that uses electronic toll tag systems on 11 of its main roads can’t claim there isn’t a technological solution to a Brexit border

Sir Jeffrey’s observation appears to be an attempt to suggest that the problems presented by a post-brexit hard border between the northern and southern jurisdictions within Ireland could be readily solved through the application of appropriate technology.

I was immediately reminded of the following quote, from the first computer scientist, the great Charles Babbage:

On two occasions I have been asked, — “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower, House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

Babbage’s occasionally acerbic commentary, laced with dry humour, on the tribulations of trying to explain technology to Parliament (from his autobiographical book, “Passages from the Life of a Philosopher” – first published 153 years ago) provide a fascinating insight into how, in many ways, so little has changed over a century and a half, whether it is in dealing with Conservative Party policy positions on internet security, or Jeffrey’s ideas about the capabilities of license plate tagging systems.

Strapped, many of us against our will, to the framework of this gargantuan national effort to deploy the overriding force of a single referendum result in an effort to disprove the veracity of the Dunning-Kruger effect, Sir Jeffrey’s invocation of a solution he does not understand, to solve a problem whose scope and detail has not been defined, is archetypal of the era within which we find ourselves. Certain politicians, gleefully addressing themselves to vandalising the delicate political institutions and agreements that have led to the current stable architecture of western Europe, urge the public to either ignore the problems; ignore the experts; or place their faith in the magical imaginary black boxes with single-sentence specifications which are purported to solve the fundamentally political problems of their own design.

The issue under discussion surrounds the Irish government’s frustrated comments on what, exactly, the position of the UK is with respect to the Irish border. If the UK leaves the customs union and the free trade area, and along with this abandons freedom of movement, the result will be a kind of border that has no historical precedent on this island.

If you accept the proposition, on face value, that the referendum result was a call for a reduction in immigration and foreign labour, and a desire for better control over borders in order to deal with security threats and to allow dangerous individuals to be deported more easily, then the UK arguably must pursue a hard border to give effect to the result of the referendum. “taking back control”, as a concept, cannot be meaningful if the UK does not assert control over the movement of people, vehicles and goods over its borders. The political rhetoric in the UK around the referendum result and the need to respect the will of the people creates minefields for any politician seen to be somehow subverting that will.

But in practice, even at a glance, this is clearly going to be an incredibly difficult and expensive problem to solve. The Irish border is approximately 250-300 miles long, and there must be in the order of 300 road crossing points (I counted 100 points where a road crosses the border between Newry around to Clones before giving up – things get particularly crazy just southwest of Clones, where you will cross the border 4 times in a row driving along the same main road). There are also numerous watercourses and lakes which straddle the border. It is a smuggler’s paradise. Even in its soft, relatively inoffensive, form, the border is exploited by paramilitary smugglers trafficking illicit diesel and cigarettes, apparently beyond the capability of HMRC to seriously disrupt their activities.

When you consider all of these issues, and account for the fact that the scenario in March 2019 will lie somewhere along a very broad spectrum between full common market and customs union membership to isolation under a WTO-determined trade regime, it should become obvious that a faith-based initiative involving technological solutions that don’t exist yet might not be sufficient to turn the trick.

Mr Donaldson made specific reference to the Irish road tolling system. Number plate recognition, used for some Irish tolls (also used in London to manage the Congestion Charge), can only tell you that a vehicle with a given registration travelled past a certain point at a certain time. By itself, it can’t tell you anything else about the vehicle – the make/model, the owner, the tax or test status. It can’t even tell you if the vehicle is stolen. That information comes from other databases, and they may or may not be available across jurisdictional boundaries. A stolen car crossing the border will not be flagged up unless that information has been shared. Extensive sharing of vehicle and criminal justice databases, in both directions, would be required.

Having solved the problem of database sharing, the next practical obstacle is the need to install these systems at every border crossing point. With those camera sites in place – 300 or so of them, many of them along roads that are barely more than dirt tracks – an expensive strategy would need to be in place to address disruption to the cameras. Criminals could, for example, arrange to cut the power of a camera, or otherwise damage it, in advance of trying to move illicit goods; or they could, even more simply, arrange to cover their number plates when they’re in the vicinity of a camera.

Then, if you somehow solve those problems, you’re still back at the point where you only know about the movement of vehicles. It’s impossible to know about the movement of the vehicle’s contents, or people within vehicles, although cameras are becoming available which can make a good attempt at counting the number of occupants in a vehicle (although tinted windows or other obstruction may prove a difficulty).

Trying to track people is even harder. I’ve yet to hear a coherent solution to the problem of how the UK will control who accesses its territory, which was a fundamental leg of the Leave campaign. The United States has thrown significant financial resources into trying to solve a similar problem – albeit on a much larger scale – with limited success. Mass deportations and raids do not seem to have the desired effect. Without some kind of clear evidence of intent to commit serious crime, I do not see how European authorities can lawfully justify tracking citizens leaving their own jurisdiction to enter the UK.

The usual answer on tracking people involves a system of work permits. This will certainly discourage compliant employers from hiring anyone who is not allowed to work in the country. But it doesn’t prevent the hiring of illegal workers. The concept of illegal labour is almost alien in the UK, since we’ve such a ready supply of skilled and unskilled European labour that it is a category that simply barely exists, to the extent that it has occurred to very few of us as a possibility. That will all change when the labour market becomes constricted. At that point, the open border will become a clear pathway for illegal labourers to enter the UK without being detected, even if they have been deported.

Bereft of practical solutions to these problems, the DUP and the Leave camp are left dismissing the concerns of “whinging remoaners” and repeating simplistic assertions which they hold onto in the manner of a drunk clinging to a whiskey bottle. The ultimate logical conclusion of the amateurish proposals they’re floating is to turn the UK, or at least this part of it, into a surveillance dominated database state where every object for sale or purchase and every citizen or visitor movement is tracked, a development which Sir Jeffrey, to his credit, appears to have an honourable record of opposing in Parliament.

It’s a high stakes game, in an environment where volatile public opinion surrounding fears on terrorism and immigration may well translate into a form of second class status for Northern Ireland’s British citizens, who could find themselves having to prove their nationality and declare their goods at ports and airports within their own country. It’s tempting to laugh it off, but this possibility is serious enough that several senior DUP politicians issued public warnings to the Government against it, and it must yet be serious still that the Government have refused to publicly rule it out.

A workable approach to avoid all of this while giving effect to the referendum result is to retain membership of the Customs Union and the Single Market. It’s high time the DUP and the other parts of the brexit camp got serious not only about the limits on what can be achieved when the UK departs the EU, but also the unpalatable risks to the status of British citizens in Northern Ireland, and the consequences that arise from interfering with the status of all the citizens in Northern Ireland, including those who identify as other than British. It’s not unreasonable to ask that they should be willing to meet the rest of us halfway. I hope that moment comes before it is too late.