A sleeping pig, yesterday

We have the border, now where’s the tech?

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Doubts persist over whether the post-Brexit Northern Ireland border technology will be ready by the deadline of 1 January 2021.

When it comes to the post-Brexit Irish border, the only thing that’s certain is the uncertainty of it all.

If things stay as they are, come 1 January 2021 customs checks will take place in ports and not on any land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The UK government finally announced its position in May 2020, four years after the Brexit referendum. Four years of political and economic wrangling.

With only a few weeks to go before the end of the transition period for the UK to leave the EU, the likely outcome, at least in the immediate future, is more muddle. That from 1 January, customs infrastructure, procedures and technology, at least on the UK side of the border, will be in such a state of unpreparedness that it won’t work as required. Or even if it does, many of those who need to use it won’t know how to.

There are more questions than answers, not unusual when discussing the Irish border, and there’s not going to be an extension to drag this out further than 1 January. Dr Katy Hayward, an expert on the post-Brexit border from Queen’s University Belfast, recently told E&T that this is because the UK didn’t want one.

“In January, for goods coming into the UK from the EU, there will be a slow run-in period for six months, a staggered phasing-in of customs procedures, which will likely take place away from entry ports to allow incoming vehicles to keep moving,” she says. “For goods moving from the UK into Northern Ireland, EU rules apply from 1 January, there’s no transition period and customs declarations will need to be made in advance.”

David Henig, director of the UK Trade Policy Project, thinks that there will probably end up being checks for goods at the ports in both directions. “We’re not yet clear about how some of this might look, though – for instance, the legalities of lorries operating across border,” he says.

On 15 September, it became public knowledge that the government’s Smart Freight service, which is supposed to manage the customs declarations from the UK into Ireland, wouldn’t be ready until April 2021. However, on 12 October, government announced that a version of this service, now called ‘Check an HGV is Ready to Cross the Border Service’, would be ready in January after all.

On 18 September, HMRC announced that a consortium led by Fujitsu had won a £200m, two-year contract to run the Trader Support Service. Since the end of that month, traders moving goods under the Northern Ireland Protocol can sign up to the digital service for support and guidance on how to comply with the Northern Ireland Protocol and manage their import, safety and security declarations. During the summer, the UK government also promised £100m for border IT systems.

However, again in September a leaked Cabinet Office memo spoke of gaps in the preparation of its technology, so critical as to make Brexit border trade plans unmanageable. The memo reported that at least three of ten new systems were still being designed and that there’s still no operating protocol for customs or information on inland checking points or which systems particular ports will use.

“Back in the summer we were told that the IT systems would be in place, but they aren’t ready and won’t be ready in January,” says Hayward. “We don’t even know if the systems have been tested or piloted yet.”

She continues: “Where is that tech? Why is it not being advanced? Do we not have the capacity to roll it out? Are there a lack of decisions? Or is it too ambitious at this particular stage?”

More questions, not many answers and more muddle. There is technology out there, though, that would enable customs declarations and checks to be done en route. In principle, at least.

‘Back in the summer we were told that the IT systems would be in place, but they aren’t ready and won’t be ready in January. We don’t even know if the systems have been tested or piloted yet.’

Dr Katy Hayward, Queen’s University Belfast

A couple of years ago, former Swedish customs official Lars Karlsson was one expert who suggested that an electronic drive-through border could replace any physical border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. This is where details are taken of passing vehicles, the manifest, goods, customs documents. Such technology would work just as well at a port.

Andrew Bird, CEO of GSM and the founder of ‘Trust Passport’, thinks that smart border technology could be used in conjunction with cheap off-the-shelf tracking technology to enable checks to be taken while a vehicle is in transit.

 “You can put a radio frequency identification (RFID) tracker on an animal, say each chicken in a lorry load heading from the UK into Ireland, and a wireless mesh network over the border, in the sea, or in whatever location you want to check goods,” he says. “When the lorry passes the network you know where the chicken is in almost real-time, its heart rate, body temperature – biometric indicators of disease or stress. You know where the animal came from, where it’s going to, you can automate the point where taxes are due and store it all on blockchain technology.

“This is everyday technology. Scanning from a mobile phone, smart labelling and asset tagging that has been around for years. All we do is change their use.”

Bird adds that smart ink, nano technology approved by the USA’s FDA, can be sprayed on or injected into the chicken to replicate the same signal as the sensor. This substance, he explains, can be detected by see-through-the-wall technology, which is visible up to 2km away in water. The mesh network can use satellites to cover the ocean.

The system can be used just as well with vegetables; Bird tried it with a shipment of one million cucumbers, and even inorganic items. He says: “Put a tag on a watch strap, read the chip on your phone and it tells you where the leather was made, whether the cow was fed organically and treated ethically.”

Bird continues: “You can tell if the vehicle is sticking to its transport execution plan. If there’s an unscheduled stop you know about it. If there’s something else in the lorry that’s not supposed to be there, or if some of the items are missing, this will show up.”

Sounds sensible, presuming of course every chicken producer would want consumers to know where their chickens came from, how healthy they are and whether or not the birds have been dipped in chlorine. And assuming that the UK government would prefer consumers to buy healthy organic chickens from Ireland rather than cheap factory-farmed animals from the US.

Bird thinks that people actually would rather buy local products than something that has been flown or shipped all over the world, running up a massive carbon footprint, before arriving on their shelves. The UK Trade Policy Project’s Henig thinks that this sort of technology will be of interest as it means there’s no need for static checks.

Queen’s University Belfast’s Hayward has a different view. “We have the technology but, however good that technology is, it can’t solve what is essentially a legal and political problem,” she says. “You can’t get around the fact that Northern Ireland is fundamentally integrated into Ireland and into Great Britain.”

Hayward believes that the best way of minimising time-​consuming customs checks is to have closely aligned rules. “The more divergent the rules the bigger the problem,” she says. “For technology to work you need cooperation between the different agencies involved, to share information across borders.”

Henig adds: “The UK government has been more concerned with politics, what it has to do and can get away with not doing, than the actual practicalities of making things work [on the border], the technical requirements and what technology can do.”

Bird is hoping that this will change when he puts his tracking system to Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove – a meeting he hopes will take place later this year or early next.

Gove has been involved in negotiations with the EU over the Northern Irish border, which became a source of dispute again, in September, after the controversial Internal Market Bill was put forward, which would give UK ministers the right to overrule the Withdrawal Agreement and allow goods from Northern Ireland into mainland UK in breach of the Agreement.

This latest round of political and economic wrangling shows that no matter what is agreed or not agreed by 1 January, the situation could easily change again at some point in the future. If, say, the UK government decides that more aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU aren’t to their liking. Or if Britain leaves the EU with no trade deal and the EU subsequently thinks that customs procedures in Northern Ireland aren’t robust enough to stop untaxed UK goods from crossing into Ireland and the EU single market via one of the 288 crossing points between the two countries.

Or if, in 2024, a Unionist majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly votes to scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol altogether, as they are legally entitled to do.

At the moment there is no majority for such a course in the NI Assembly. However, as Harold Wilson, prime minister in 1975, the previous time the British people voted in a referendum on Europe, once said: a week is a long time in politics. Just think how much could change during the next four years.


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