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Brexit and the Irish border workshop

On 21 March 2018, as the UK and the European Union reach a critical juncture in the Brexit negotiations, representatives from the engineering, manufacturing, science, and technology communities in Northern Ireland debated the potential impact of Brexit on the Irish border at a workshop and conference in Belfast.

Hosted by the IET’s Engineering Policy Group for Northern Ireland, the event examined a range of challenges and opportunities that will stem from the UK’s withdrawal from the Customs Union and the Single Market.

The four main speakers examined detailed aspects of the situation, including the current political context, how Brexit could impact on engineering and manufacturing, the likely effect within the border region itself and the possibilities of setting up a “smart border”. These issues were considered by 50 delegates at the all-day event.

There was press coverage of the proceedings from two local radio stations, Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle, while the Radio 4 Today programme covered it some days later. A report of the proceedings is available below, produced via a “just in time” reporting system using iPads at individual discussion tables along with a presentation showing the days proceedings.

Background of the Border

The Northern Ireland border is 310 miles long with over 200 formal crossing points and probably the same number again of informal crossing points. Since 1993, it has been virtually open.

Currently, 30,000 people cross it on a daily basis, and 80% of those who engage in cross border trading are small businesses. In the aftermath of the decision by the UK to leave the EU, a new regime will have to be prepared for, but there are still large areas of uncertainty. A dedicated committee of officials is currently examining the situation, which will have to be resolved before autumn 2018.

No definite predictions can be made at this point as to the future nature of the border itself. The current debate centres on exemptions, technology and alignment, although none of these options (other than a very full interpretation of alignment) will avoid a return to a “hard” border. Much will depend on the future trading arrangements between the UK and the EU, in particular the degree of future divergence which may emerge and how this would be controlled.

While technology such as vehicle recognition systems and trusted trader schemes (e.g. Authorised Economic Operators or Approved Exporters) has a role in facilitating future relations, it cannot provide all the solutions. In the final analysis, it is probably not possible to have a hard Brexit and a soft border.

For more on the IET’s take on this issue, take a look at this more in-depth article from Joanna Cox and Ciaran Molloy of the IET’s Strategic Engagement and Partnerships team, which was published on Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) website.