Can technology and ‘max fac’ solve the Irish border question? Expert explains

More fundamentally, any solution would have to address the historical, economic and geographical realities of the Irish border, as well as its political and social significance.

Gathering Information
The effectiveness of maximum facilitation in customs enforcement stands or falls on the scale and quality of the information the systems receive. This type of border control requires operators and travelers to pre-register for customs checks and constantly disclose accurate information to all relevant parties.

When vehicles pass through approved crossings, officials can track the progress of registered vehicles (albeit without knowledge of what they are carrying). If used on a mass scale, big data can be used to identify patterns of suspicious activity.

It is also possible to gather information that is not willingly – nor wittingly – submitted by those crossing the border. Sensors buried in the ground or micro synthetic aperture radar on drones in the air could detect unexpected vehicle movement across a border.

Such technology may have its uses in unpopulated, inhospitable plains where border crossings are almost automatically suspect. But as a means of monitoring a border that is literally crisscrossed with small roads and straddled by farms, households and parishes, it is as redundant as it is offensive.

Just think how the residents of Dover or Holyhead would respond to the idea of being constantly surveilled by drones or mobile phone tracing. Those in the Irish border region have recent experience of close surveillance and border controls. Twenty years on from the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, the negative consequences of militarized security at the Irish border remain evident: economically, socially and politically.

It is absolutely critical to appreciate that the achievement of a porous, unmonitored Irish border is a much-cherished sign of the peace process. Hence the promise to avoid a hard border.

Checking goods
Another concern about customs checks is the question of how these might occur. Goods container inspections require physical infrastructure and human resources. Experience on the Irish border shows that routine customs inspections can escalate into serious operations requiring security protection. Politicians hope technology can alleviate this.

There have been steady advances in non-intrusive screening techniques. Vapor analysis using what’s known as neutron-activated spectroscopy could enable customs to detect the presence of certain chemical compounds. Gamma ray scanning can be used to give a type of x-ray image of what is inside a container, while Muon tomography can help customs assess the volume and location of contents in a container.

But these technologies are very expensive and impractical. They are designed for a particular task, such as detecting a specific type of contraband, and are neither speedy nor invisible.

Human checks on goods will remain critical to customs supervision. At the very least this will require warehouses large enough to inspect freight. Locating them away from the border does not mean no border controls, only less effective ones. For the further from the border these are located, the greater the opportunity for cargo to be swapped or stolen.

Sugar coating the real problem
Maximum facilitation can do no more than its name suggests – facilitate customs procedures. It cannot end the need for customs checks. In fact, it relies upon them.

The more hidden the technology monitoring a customs border is, the greater the need for surveillance and data capture. Movements, transactions and communications across the Irish border are a precious part of everyday life for so many in Ireland, north and south. To gather data on such movements, transactions and communications for the purpose of enforcing a customs border that no one in Northern Ireland wishes to see is hardly a viable (let alone democratic) solution.

Max fac could certainly conjure up more efficient and surreptitious border controls than have previously existed between the U.K. and Ireland. But the sugar-coating of technology would hardly last long before the bitter reality of enforcing a U.K.-EU customs border in Ireland was revealed.

Katy Hayward is Reader in Sociology, Queen’s University Belfast. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.