Bertie Ahern: technology and turning blind eye could solve Brexit border issue

Dublin and London have clashed on the post-Brexit border

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in the stands before Denmark match in the Aviva Stadium earlier this month. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in the stands before Denmark match in the Aviva Stadium earlier this month. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA


The only solution to Ireland’s row with Britain over the post-Brexit border is to introduce technology to manage multinational trade while turning a blind eye to lower-level cross-frontier movement, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has suggested.

The issue of how to maintain the “soft” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Brexit is a key stumbling block in Brexit negotiations, and British prime minister Theresa May has just a week to meet a European deadline to make progress before trade talks can begin.

British cabinet minister Liam Fox has said the issue cannot be resolved until it is known what the “end state” of the UK-EU trade relationship will be after Brexit 2019, but Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has called for firm guarantees amid fears that the British commitment to leaving the single market and customs union could see a return to a hard border.

Mr Ahern said the only option appeared to be using technology to manage a soft border governing EU-UK trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland, while simply ignoring lower level commerce in areas like agriculture.

“Our economy is relatively small, a huge amount of the trade is multinationals; it should be possible, I think, to do that by technology,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“But of course, when you come down to agriculture and smaller items, I don’t think technology would work.

“One thing we do not want, can’t have, is back to a physical border.”

He added: “Theresa May, take her at her word, she’s confidently said she doesn’t want a physical border, the EU don’t want a physical border, the Irish Government don’t.

“So you’re left down with the one alternative — to make technology work in most cases and to throw a blind eye to those areas that can’t come in within technology.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has dismissed a claim that Ireland was threatening the UK, but insisted that the Republic must be protected in the Brexit process.

He said: “Ireland is not threatening anybody, least of all a friend, but we remain resolute in our insistence on a sensible way through Brexit that protects Ireland.”

Dublin has said that if either the whole of the UK or just Northern Ireland remains in the single market and customs union then there would be no problem with maintaining the current soft border arrangements — a proposal ruled out by the British prime minister. Any arrangement which appeared to give Northern Ireland a separate status would be strongly resisted by the DUP, whose 10 MPs are effectively keeping Mrs May in Downing Street after she lost her majority in the general election.

Mrs May has been given until December 4th to come up with further proposals on issues including the border, the Brexit divorce bill and citizens’ rights if European leaders are to give the green light to moving on to the next phase of negotiations covering the future trading relationship between the UK and Brussels.

European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee acknowledged that some of the final details would have to be dealt with in the next phase of Brexit talks but the UK must come forward with further proposals now to achieve the aim of maintaining a soft border.

Ms McEntee told Channel 4 News: “We cannot say that there is sufficient progress on the Irish issue when there has not been.

“Theresa May’s speech in Florence was very welcome, the commitment to not return to a hard border on the island of Ireland is welcome.

“However if all of the options that we feel can make that possible have been taken off the table then we need them to produce something else that will give us confidence, moving into phase two, that this can actually be achieved. To date this has not happened.

“But obviously I would hope, we need to be optimistic, that negotiations can continue before the December council meeting and that we can see some solution to this.”