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How to End a Shameful History!

There is no need for the Irish border question either to derail the EU/UK Brexit discussions or to determine the overall agreement. The UK government and MPs have already proposed workable technological solutions.

Local traffic and agriculture must be exempt from controls. These make up to 80 per cent of trade transactions on the Irish border. They are characterised by high volume and frequency but low value transactions. However, exempting these will require a level of flexibility from the EU which is not evidenced to date.

However, the exemptions appear to be compliant with GATT regulations. David Collins, Professor of International Economic Law at City, University of London, and an acknowledged WTO specialist, has pointed out that, in a free trade deal type, along the lines of the recent EU/Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA):

The land border between the UK and Ireland need not have any physical infrastructure and as such should not represent a political obstacle to a UK-EU FTA. Article XVIII of the GATT and the Trade Facilitation Agreement of the WTO require that WTO members must minimize customs procedures as far as reasonably possible. Moreover, special arrangements to streamline borders (as between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) such as those involving regular trader exemptions and technology, are permitted under the exemption for border traffic under Article XXIV of the GATT. (Negotiating Brexit: The Legal Basis for EU & Global Trade).

Also, the UK has already indicated that, in a limited number of areas, including energy, animal and plant health, transport etc., it makes perfect sense to align the regulatory requirements throughout the island of Ireland. This can be achieved, in part, through the mechanism of the North/South implementation bodies which have operated on an all island basis in several areas since 1999 and are based on the North/South Strand of the Good Friday Agreement.

The remaining element, which in reality means large firms with a defined number of employees or turnover, can be accommodated by a trusted trading arrangement. While any British Irish operation on the border would be sui generis, one model which would be worth looking at is the Australian one. The main features of the Australian Trader Programme (ATT), which is rapidly growing, includes:

  • A single point of contact between the Australian Border Service and the Trusted Trader Business. Communications are normally electronic.
  • A composite monthly return submitted by the Trusted Trader, rather than returns on every cargo.
  • A single consolidated return for multi types of goods rather than a different declaration for different goods type.
  • Regular discussions between the companies and the Australian Border Service.
  • Use of a special Logo, clearly designating the goods as coming or going to a Trusted Trading company
  • Priority for these companies in any dealing with the Border Service.All trusted trader systems operate on a self-assessment and self-regulation basis. Responsible companies will not wish to violate the law, and this would be backed up by a system of audits and on-site inspections, much as the present VAT system operates.

All trusted trader systems operate on a self-assessment and self-regulation basis. Responsible companies will not wish to violate the law, and this would be backed up by a system of audits and on-site inspections, much as the present VAT system operates.

In addition, there could be a further requirement that all HGV operators on the island of Ireland install a special tracking device in their vehicles so that the customs authorities could check whether any company returns tallied with the physical evidence of the tracking device. These types of arrangement could be modified over time, as experience is gained in where the snags will arise and where it works well. However, if operated with a coordinated mutual recognition programme by the two customs services, it may be sufficient to facilitate all parties desire to avoid a hard border.

It is noteworthy that many custom officials, both Irish and British, privately are confident that they could successfully operate such a system. There would, of course, still be a need to have some monitoring of vehicles crossing the border on the main routes, but this could be achieved through technology, with the use of cameras. There are already cameras installed on the main Dublin/Belfast highway, just south of the border city of Newry. These are unobtrusive, and taken with the other arrangements, might be adequate enough to avoid any new installations.

There may also have to be some limited checks at ports connecting Ireland, both North and South, with Britain. These would constitute a similarly unobtrusive arrangement to ensure that areas which remained aligned on an all island basis, and where there was some divergence with Britain, were also monitored. It is also likely that this system would require some spot checks at mainland European ports on Irish vessels to ensure the system was not being abused as a back door into the EU.

As with the present EU/Swiss model, a supervising committee, comprising expert representatives of the EU and the UK could meet regularly to monitor its operation and advise authorities on the need for any changes.


Irish and British people will have to live alongside each other. Our history has been characterised on occasions by poor and short-term decision making. This is a time when Ireland should, by all logic, be working hard to ensure a beneficial outcome which restores the excellent relations between the two countries. Ireland needs to be the foremost advocate for comprehensive free trading arrangements between the EU and the UK. Unfortunately, the border issue has gotten in the way. We need to solve this matter as soon as possible, and by a method which does not seek to scupper the referendum result. The history of ignoring and reversing referenda results in the EU is shameful. We certainly do not need another example.

Ireland also needs to look after its own self-interest and realise that its deep connections with its neighbour, the United Kingdom, are more valuable than temporary plaudits from Brussels for being ‘the best boy in the classroom’. The further abandonment of Ireland’s remaining sovereignty is what is facing the country unless it changes course.

There is no need for the Irish border question either to derail the EU/UK Brexit discussions or to determine the overall agreement. The Border question has been used by elements within the Remain camp to try and block the UK’s departure from the EU. It is certainly not in the long-term interest of Ireland to be used in this cynical manner.


Dr Ray Bassett

Dr Ray Bassett is a former senior diplomat at Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin who served as the country’s Ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and the Bahamas between 2010 and 2016. He is the author of Ireland and the EU Post Brexit (2020) and his Politeia publications include The Irish Border, Brexit and the EU: The Route to Frictionless Trade, (2019, co-published with New Direction) and Brexit – Options for the Irish Border, (2018).

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