“Sat nav and a mobile phone in the cab.” One of two answers to two problems?

David Trimble gets breezier by the day as he dismisses with a  “ no problem” problems that may seem to him small beer compared to  those that won him a share in the Nobel peace prize twenty years ago.


“ Sat Nav and a mobile phone in the cab “ sorts the border problem out he claims. ( But what then, David? Do they never have to stop for spot checks? Or if they do so, where)?  His remarks on the Today programme were prompted by a Policy Exchange think tank paper  Getting over the Line by his old economic adviser Graham Gudgin and the mildly renegade lrish ex-diplomat Ray Bassett.


This report, based on a series of Policy Exchange articles, outlines how the UK got itself into this difficult position, including the wording of last December’s Joint Progress Report when the UK conceded too much on the Northern Ireland Issue in its anxiety to move onto trade talks. The lesson of that mistake is that hurried concessions will most likely be punished at a later date, as UK flexibility comes up against a hard-line EU negotiating position.

The main argument of the report is that an Irish border without physical infrastructure is fully attainable, and therefore that the overly complex proposals for a Customs Partnership are unnecessary. Arrangements based on the UK’s proposals for an expanded trusted trader scheme and exemptions for small traders will suffice to operate a border without infrastructure. The additional idea of a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around the whole island for animal health may have additional merit as long as it carries no constitutional implications that unionists would reject. All of this would be greatly facilitated by the Free Trade Agreement that the UK wishes to negotiate and which the EU is delaying and frustrating.


Modern technology means that physical customs posts, or even cameras, are no longer essential at borders. This has been pointed out by Lars Karlsson, a customs expert commissioned by the EU to look into this subject, who envisages the use of mobile phone and GPS technology to track HGVs, together with the computer-based customs clearing (the norm across much of the world). Computerised customs clearing consists of declarations of tariff duties payable, including on import content, and also the necessary certification of regulatory  approval.


Inspection of animal health and food standards can occur at producers’ premises, is common in current practice. Customs clearance occurs at the exporter’s premises and the sealed consignments can then cross the Irish border while being tracked electronically by customs authorities. Few additional incentives for smuggling will be in place if there is an FTA, but smuggling can be further deterred if legislation mandates that all HGVs operating in Ireland carry tracking technology.

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. ”


In addition, ( Gudgin’s) former boss, Lord Trimble, claims in a foreword to the report published on Wednesday that “fears over a hard border are only as strong as the refusal of those who do not engage with a workable technological solution”. Lord Trimble also argues that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar “is endangering more than three decades of goodwill built up between London and Dublin.


Key Recommendations 1) The negotiations should aim to achieve three things – all of which can be delivered: a. Respect the UK’s referendum result, including its departure from the Single Market and Customs Union b. Preserve a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic c. Maintain the free flow of trade between the UK, EU, including Northern Ireland and the Republic


2) These outcomes can be achieved through a UK/EU free trade agreement and technical solutions to border crossings – the so-called Max-Fac option.


3) These solutions are being shunned by Brussels and Dublin for political reasons. The UK should persist in advancing the sensible ‘max-fac’ solution.


4) The UK Government should now return to its earlier position of insisting that full settlement of the Irish border issue should await the wider agreement on trade arrangements.


5) Ultimately, the Republic of Ireland stands to lose most from a failure to reach an agreement, followed by the EU. The Irish Government should co-operate with the UK in devising a border without physical infrastructure. 6) Peace in Northern Ireland, including the Good Friday Agreement, is more secure now than it was 30 years ago when the treaty was published. Those seeking to undermine Britain’s withdrawal from the EU by scaremongering over the future of the GFA are wrong and should desist.

What the report and Trimble underestimate is the Dublin government’s fears for the Republic’s future because of Brexit, rather than them possessing a wish to call the shots in Northern Ireland.

Solution to problem 2, an Irish Language Act and its role in the suspension of  Stormont,  comes from my distinguished near namesake  Professor Brian Mercer Walker, who is far too young to be emeritus. Writing in the Belfast Telegraph..

Things have now changed. Sinn Fein is very keen to enter as a partner in a future Irish Government.

The southern parties are opposed to such a move, primarily on the grounds that Sinn Fein is not fit for such a role.

The failure of the Northern Ireland Executive is presented as evidence of the party’s unfitness. This will be an incentive for Sinn Fein to make future talks work successfully.

In spite of its role at Westminster, the DUP faces a serious threat.

If the current impasse continues, the Assembly will be dissolved and all the MLAs made redundant.

This will lead to a hollowing-out of the party. They will still have 10 MPs at Westminster, but they will have lost their 28 MLAs, including their party leader.

The DUP needs to get Stormont operating fully again.

The previous talks sank primarily due to controversy over the Irish language.

An important factor in the debacle over the Irish language was the heightened level of exaggeration and misinformation over the issue.

Matters became so hyped-up in the Protestant community that Arlene Foster felt it necessary to reassure Protestants that they would not be forced to learn Irish.

This controversy helped to collapse the talks. Sinn Fein allowed itself to be over-influenced by a relatively small number of language activists.

It made no attempt to present a more reasonable case for the Irish language.

The DUP failed to inform its followers about the need for compromise, to counter the fake news and to reassure its base.

How can the language question be resolved? It is worth noting that there is already use of the Irish language in various public areas.

My rates notification from the Land & Property Services also carries its title in Irish.

It gives me information where I can go to see the bill in Irish, or other languages.

In some areas, councils use their Irish language name as well as the English version.

In streets where there is majority approval, it is possible to have the street name in Irish.

Resources are readily available to promote Irish language-medium schools. Any new legislation can include and build on these developments.

The question of a separate Irish Language Act has been a matter of controversy.

In fact, from what we have learnt about the earlier discussions between Sinn Fein and the DUP, it had been suggested that language legislation could embrace Irish, Ulster Scots and other language and cultural matters. Such an imaginative approach to this problem should be tried again.

The parties need to discuss these issues once more and in a positive fashion.

There are some encouraging signs that today people appreciate the need for better understanding and respect on the language question.

There are many reasons to urge progress on the language issue. Success or failure may well have an impact on the future of the parties.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London