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'Technology alone isn't going to solve the problem': Ex-Brexit border chief rejects claims by Hunt and Johnson

Karen Wheeler was the Director General for Borders at the UK’s customs service.

Boris Johnson in Belfast yesterday.
Boris Johnson in Belfast yesterday.

TECHNOLOGY ALONE WON’T solve the Northern Ireland border problem, according to the British government official who was in charge of Brexit border preparations until just days ago.

Karen Wheeler, who left her job as the UK customs agency’s border co-ordinator last week, also said this morning that it was “very unclear” what the Irish government was going to do about the border if there is no deal by 31 October.

Wheeler told a London audience that the British government’s main concern on land border arrangements were “the large number of small businesses that trade across the land border”, admitting that it had only “relatively late in the day” begun to discuss no-deal arrangements with them.

Cross-border trade is expected to be badly hit by a no-deal Brexit, which would mean automatic tariffs and checks for compliance with EU single market regulations.

British politicians have suggested that inspections could be done remotely. But Wheeler insisted that “technology alone is not going to solve that border problem”, adding that “in any case the technology is not in place any time soon”.

That contradicts the claims of the two Conservative leadership candidates, Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson. Hunt said yesterday in Belfast that a border in Northern Ireland could be avoided “with the technology we have”.

Wheeler was making her first public appearance since leaving her job at HMRC, the UK tax and customs agency, last week.

She had been Director General for Borders, in charge of co-ordinating the country’s border preparations for Brexit.

Exporting

Speaking at the Institute for Government think tank today, Wheeler said that companies exporting from Northern Ireland into the Republic faced going out of business because of EU tariffs that would automatically spring up in the event of no deal.

It would be extremely difficult for goods moving from Northern Ireland into Ireland because of the tariff barriers, which would potentially make many businesses uneconomic to trade in that direction.

By contrast, the UK government has said that it will waive tariffs and customs checks on the land border as part of a “strictly temporary” plan to avoid an instant hard border if the UK crashes out with no deal.

Wheeler said that, as a result, “trade would be able to come from Ireland into Northern Ireland but there would be more barriers to trade moving from Northern Ireland to Ireland… that would have economic consequences”.

Brexit The Donegal border town of Muff. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Wheeler also said that while European ports, including Dublin, had made customs preparations for no-deal, it was “very unclear” how the Irish government would deal with the land border.

“Without knowing what the arrangements are on the other side of the border, it’s extremely difficult for traders to prepare,” she said.

The government has said that many customs and regulations checks could be done remotely, but not all. A report published by the NI Department for the Economy last month concluded that inspection posts would be needed for food imports, while Leo Varadkar has admitted that “animal checks are much more difficult”.

Also at the event, Cambridge law professor Lorand Bartels was asked about the idea — mentioned by Johnson yesterday – of turning Belfast into a “free port” where imports could be landed without paying tariffs.

“The main problem is that it’s extremely complicated, and you need to wall off your free trade zone from a non-free trade part of your territory”, Bartels said.

A no-deal Brexit on 31 October is seen as increasingly likely in the UK, with both Hunt and Boris refusing to rule it out.

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