LONDON (Reuters) - No technology solution exists or can alone solve the issue of preventing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic after Britain leaves the EU, the British official who was in charge of Brexit border preparations said on Wednesday.
Karen Wheeler, who left her role as Director General of Britain’s Cross Government Border Delivery Group last week, also said planning for a no-deal Brexit had felt like preparing for a crisis and even if the government was ready, it could not ensure the same for industry and businesses.
“When government says it’s as ready as it can be, it is mostly saying we’ve done everything that we can,” she said. “What it doesn’t mean is everything will be fine”.
Three years after Britons voted narrowly in a referendum to leave the European Union, Britain is still wrangling over how and when to leave.
Prime Minister Theresa May will leave her job later this month having failed three times to secure parliamentary backing for her EU withdrawal treaty.
The main sticking point was concerns over the Irish “backstop”, an insurance policy to prevent having border controls on the island of Ireland by tying the UK to EU rules until a new trade deal was agreed.
Eliminating a hard border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and Ireland and providing frictionless trade was a crucial part of a 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of sectarian violence.
Former London mayor Boris Johnson and foreign minister Jeremy Hunt, who are vying to replace May, have said they can secure changes to the withdrawal deal to get rid of the backstop and say they are prepared to take Britain out of the bloc without a deal on Oct. 31 if necessary.
Both contenders have suggested that alternative arrangements, based on new technology, could provide a solution.
“I think we can find a solution on the island of Ireland that may well blaze a trail around the world for how invisible borders can actually work,” Hunt told Reuters on Tuesday.
Wheeler said the issue would require more than technology.
“A lot is talked about technology at the border and technology solutions. I think alternative arrangements is intended to try to find technology solutions,” she said.
“Technology alone is not going to solve that border problem, it needs to be around other arrangements as well. In any case, the technology is not in place any time soon, the sorts of arrangements that will be necessary,”
She also said ensuring traders, road hauliers and end-to-end supply chains were geared up for any changes could potentially take longer than getting a technology solution.
Britain was originally due to leave the EU on March 29 but the exit date was extended to Oct. 31 to allow more time for British lawmakers to agree a withdrawal agreement.
Intensive no-deal preparations were scaled down after the March deadline passed and when asked how long a new prime minister would have to step them up, Wheeler said: “Not long. Our view was that we needed to start getting preparations ready to go in July in order to be ready for Oct. 31”
She said in March officials felt they had done as much as they could to mitigate the impact of a no-deal divorce.
“It felt like we were preparing for a crisis where we didn’t fully, couldn’t fully understand how it would play out,” she said, adding that trade across the Channel and the Northern Ireland border were “areas where you can’t mitigate those risks away and all you can do is cope with the consequences”.
Allie Renison, Head of Europe and Trade Policy at the Institute of Directors, which represents business leaders, said about two-thirds of firms thought no-deal would have a bad impact on their operations and half had not done any planning.
A third said they could not prepare in advance because there were too many unanswered questions, she added.
Although Britain intends to prioritise the flow of goods at ports in a no-deal scenario, Wheeler said traffic at the southern English port of Dover and at Calais in northern France was likely to get snarled up by vehicles lacking the necessary paperwork.
“If trucks get stopped at Calais then after a while the docks will get clogged up and that will cause problems in both directions,” she said.
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Gareth Jones