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How technology alone cannot deliver a "frictionless" Northern Ireland-Ireland border.

Posted on 27-Sep-2017 15:54:48

The NI/Irish border - note the change in road surfacing and markings. One of the Official border crossing points during the Troubles it was the site of a heavily fortified army check point. Pic courtesy of Shane Killen.Whilst largely ignored during the Brexit referendum, the issue of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has since become one of the principle challenges in negotiating the UK’s departure from the European Union. Running for a total of 499 km (310 mi), what was previously a border separating counties, it became an international one in 1922, when Ireland became an independent nation and Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. In the following decades, the border experience fluctuating levels of security. During the Troubles, the border was a regular flashpoint between republican groups and security forces with regular checks for those travelling across it. However in 2005, in line with implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the remaining controls were definitively removed. This period of stability was abruptly halted when the UK voted to leave the European Union, a withdrawal that would make the Republic of Ireland-Northern Ireland border an external EU border. In view of the social, political, historical and security sensitivities that beset the area, the UK have repeatedly stated there would be “no return to the hard borders of the past” and it would instead be a “frictionless and seamless” border. The solution, the UK claims is in “technology” although like most of the Brexit negotiations, there is as of yet, scant detail on the specifics. Today, Transport Security World editor Luke Upton looks at some of the technologies that exist on the market that could help the UK and Irish government solve this challenge and assess if they are real possibilities.

Brexit Secretary David Davis told the House of Commons earlier this month: "I am confident that using the most up-to-date technology, we can get a non-visible border operational along the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland… authorised Economic Operators, pre-notification, electronic tagging of containers, all of those things will make it possible for the Border to be as light touch as it is today."

So what are some of those technologies that Mr. Davis is putting his faith in for a "frictionless" Northern Ireland-Ireland border?

Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR)

An already well established technology that uses optical character recognition on images to read vehicle registration plates using existing closed-circuit television, road-rule enforcement cameras, or cameras specifically designed for the task. Used by police forces around the world to check if a vehicle is registered or licensed it is also used for electronic toll collection on pay-per-use roads or tunnels. Some ANPR systems also store a photograph of the driver. In the UK vehicle movements are recorded by a network of nearly 8000 cameras capturing between 25 and 30 million ANPR ‘read’ records daily, with the London Congestion Charge being the most high-profile use of the technology. Also known as Automated Vehicle Identification System (AVI).

Smart CCTV

Emerging but operational, effective and efficient CCTV can help border security by automatically scanning people and vehicles and allocating them against lists of approved or questionable names and alerting security staff to the presence of suspect individuals.

Strabane Check.jpg

(The way it used to be... and will be again? A UK border post outside Strabane, Northern Ireland in 1968.Picture courtesy of henrikjon (Flickr)


Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, also known as drones) can be used for aerial surveillance to detect illegal crossings and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agency in the USA, to seek ones that have facial recognition capabilities. Aerostat (tethered unpowered balloons and airships) could also be used in this capacity.


Either fibre optic sensors (FOSs), which are buried in the ground and pick up pressure waves in the earth caused by movement or similarly Unattended Ground Sensors (UGSs), which come in three main forms, i.e., seismic, magnetic and infrared, and can detect ground movement, which indicates that someone or something is crossing the border. Sensory technology could be allied with thermal cameras to focus in on what has caused the movement.

But, to put it simply, none of these alone will enforce a comprehensive border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Technology can assist and improve borders, but it cannot, yet, offer a replacement for checkpoints, humans and walls or fences. Any claims to the contrary are either referencing technology not yet on the market, or being economical with the truth.

The idea that technology alone could solve the border issue is also dismissed by a number of experts.

Speaking to the Irish Times, Sadhbh McCarthy, who set up and led the Centre for Irish and European Security (CIES) stated; It’s one of these things that if people say it often enough it starts to sound like something that could work. If border issues were that easy to sort out do you think the US, with all its resources, would be considering building a big wall with Mexico?”

“You can put in as many complex technology solutions as you like but you will never get over the need for personnel on the ground. It doesn’t matter what you do electronically to minimise the visuals, a border will still exist. You can reduce the number of people who are seen doing things but you will always need to have them nearby to respond when a problem is identified,” Ms McCarthy added.

Click here to download your copy of the Transport Security and Saftey Expo 2018 BrochureDr Mark Maguire, head of Maynooth University’s department of anthropology, and someone who has over a decade’s experience focusing on security and border issues, also questioned the frictionless border; “There’s no magic bullet. It just doesn’t exist.”

Lead UK opposition party Labour’s Northern Ireland spokesman, Owen Smith, said: “The government say they want trade across the Irish border to be frictionless and seamless, but actually they look clueless as to how they’re going to achieve that.”

Whilst the EU agree, stating: “What we see in the UK paper is a lot of magical thinking about how an invisible border would work in the future.” 

Editor’s view: Technology is no magic bullet, the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will ultimately have to be solved politically. Once the UK leaves the EU, the only way to secure the border with Ireland to the standard demanded by the leading Brexit voices, is as it stands, to return to the border posts of the past. And even then, it remains a porous border. The emphasis remains on the politicians to find an answer and with the UK leaving the EU on Friday 29th March 2019, the clock is ticking.

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Topics: TSW Secondary Featured, Urban Security, TSW Interviews, TSWInsights

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