Sunday 24 March 2019

Kenny plans 'virtual border' to preserve path to the North

Taoiseach believes 'creativity' and technology are keys to preventing 'return to hard border'

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with British Prime Minister Theresa May at No 10 Downing Street yesterday. Photo: PA
Taoiseach Enda Kenny with British Prime Minister Theresa May at No 10 Downing Street yesterday. Photo: PA

Niall O'Connor

A virtual border using technology could be the solution to maintaining an open flow of people between Northern Ireland and the Republic, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said.

After his first meeting with new British Prime Minister Theresa May, Mr Kenny ruled out the possibility of a hard border in the strongest terms yet.

"I would not agree to a hard border with a whole range of customs posts and neither does the prime minister," he said outside Downing Street.

"There are other ways of dealing with modern technology in terms of checking trade."

Mr Kenny indicated that he was open to exploring models such as those in Canada, whereby vehicles' registration plates are screened automatically as they approach a border.

"Yes, I think these are things that need to be looked at creatively. But we are both agreed very firmly that there will be no return to a hard border as existed previously," he said.

Mr Kenny's comments came as reports in London last night suggested that Mrs May and her chancellor Philip Hammond had yet to be convinced that the advantages of leaving the customs union would be offset by the liberty to negotiate that doing so would bring.

The new Trade Secretary Liam Fox is pushing for the UK to cut free from the agreement which ensures there are no tariffs on goods. Such a move is likely to add "significant" administrative costs and delays to trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Meanwhile, Mrs May continued to avoid the use of the phrase 'hard border' when discussing her meeting with Mr Kenny but emphasised the need to "preserve" the common travel area and secure "a deal that is in the interests of both of us".

"Alongside this, we should continue our efforts to strengthen the external borders of the Common Travel Area; for example, through a common approach to the use of passenger data," she said.

This would suggest that it could become more difficult for people outside the UK and Ireland to travel to the Common Travel Area, if new agreements were reached surrounding tougher borders. But any such move would likely be met with strong resistance from the EU.

Mr Kenny insisted he has secured full agreement with the prime minister about the border issue as he moved to dampen concerns about the prospect of checkpoints.

"A hard border, in normal circumstances, means customs posts and customs checks on a very regular basis. There will be no return to the hard border of the past.

"The hard border in the past included towers, obviously military equipment for many reasons," Mr Kenny said.

The Taoiseach twice dodged questions about the prospect of a united Ireland.

Asked specifically whether he, like Leo Varadkar, would like to see a 32-county Republic in his lifetime, Mr Kenny hesitated, before replying: "My focus today is on confirming that there will not be a return to a hard border, by that I mean customs posts all along the way.

"Obviously, the prime minister favours that very strongly with me. So we both agree - no return to a hard border."

In statements following the meeting, Mr Kenny said that he had invited Mrs May to visit Ireland.

He is the first head of State to visit Downing Street since Ms May became prime minister.

Meanwhile, the former president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, has called for a rethink of "speculative" fears about a hard border.

Speaking in Newry, Mr Cox said work needs to begin on common standards, data and information sharing, e-border initiatives and reinforced co-operation between the UK Border Agency and the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service.

Irish Independent

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