The Irish border is a matter of life and death, not technology

Fintan O’Toole, Guardian
8th October 2019

“Spaff some money on some geeks.” According to Chris Cook’s excellent account of Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations with Brussels, that was the instruction issued to the civil service by May’s enforcer Fiona Hill in late 2016.

It had finally dawned on the British government that it had committed itself to two incompatible things. One was that under no circumstances would there be a return to a hard border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The other was that all of the UK was going to leave the EU’s customs union. May faced exactly the same problem that her successor Boris Johnson is struggling with: you can do one or other of these things but you cannot do both. If Northern Ireland leaves the customs union, there will be border controls.

And so May tried to do what Johnson is still proposing: throw money at nerds and hope that they can somehow transform a political problem into a technical issue. The old (superbly condescending) joke was that whenever the Irish question was about to be solved, the Irish would change the question. But the British government has been trying to solve the riddle of Brexit’s Irish question not just by changing the question, but by changing the entire conceptual framework. It has to be removed from a discourse of history and geography and memory and translated into the languages of technology and managerialism.

That is how Johnson sought to define the problem in his speech to the Tory party conference last week: “Essentially a technical discussion of the exact nature of future customs checks.” Previously, of course, he suggested that crossing the Irish border was similar to going from one borough of London to another, and that any problem it creates could be solved with the same technology used to operate the city’s congestion charge.

This is a way of minimising and dismissing an inconvenient truth. But it also goes to the heart of the complete failure of Johnson’s proposals for a replacement of the backstop designed to keep the border invisible. Everybody in Ireland, north and south, knows that there are many technical questions thrown up by Brexit. But nobody – not even Johnson’s DUP allies – really believes that what Brexit does to John Bull’s Other Island is a matter for a “technical discussion”. In Ireland, it’s about lives – and deaths.

Writing about music is said to be like dancing about architecture. Using the language of technology to address the questions of history and belonging on the island of Ireland is geeking about memory – like trying to make an algorithm for grief. It’s a category error that shunts the problem not just into “alternative arrangements” but into a parallel universe.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, gets this. When she visited Ireland last April and spent time talking to people who live and work on both sides of the border, she said simply that she understood what they were saying because: “For 34 years I lived behind the iron curtain so I know only too well what it means once borders vanish, once walls fall.” She grasps the truth that what is at stake is not “the exact nature of future customs checks” – it is that customs checks (which the British government pledged never to reinstitute but now proposes to make necessary) are the outward bureaucratic signs of an inner anguish: the rebuilding of spiritual and psychological walls that have been demolished since 1998.

Two particular ironies attach to Johnson’s privileging of a technocratic discourse over real human experience. One is that the Brexit project is in every other respect famously contemptuous of “geeks”. The British people, in Michael Gove’s analysis, “have had enough of experts”. But the Irish, apparently, are expected to place all their trust in the experts, nerds and boffins who will come up with magical technologies to create what does not yet exist anywhere on Earth: a frontier between two different customs regimes across which goods move with no controls and no physical infrastructure.

The other irony is that Brexit itself is predicated on the idea that a technocratic discourse is entirely inadequate to the task of understanding how people feel about who they are and where they belong. Its bogeymen are faceless bureaucrats in Brussels who can never appreciate the importance of identity and history to the English. Yet the Irish are invited by the very same people to forget history and identity, to just lie back and think of “maximum facilitation”.

Brexiters’ technofreak obsessions cannot even begin to engage with the memories and anxieties and aspirations that are at the heart of Irish concerns about the collateral damage of the English nationalist project. The disjunction goes so deep that it even involves two different conceptions of time.

While Irish people are painfully aware of the past – the deep history that led to the creation of the border and the living memory of the Troubles – the Brexiters act like dedicated futurists. When Johnson told his party, in relation to the border, that “technology is improving the whole time”, he was repeating the sci-fi utopianism that has been central to the Brexit faith: the technology to ensure a frictionless border does not yet exist, but in these days of miracles and wonder it is just over the horizon. The actual “solutions” may be less Silicon Valley, more the IT Crowd, but tomorrow’s world is almost upon us.

Until they give up this technological illusion and engage with living history, there is no chance of Johnson and his allies coming up with serious proposals. But why should they do that? The great utility of their discourse lies in its distancing effects. The politicians and special advisers only have to spaff the cash – the geeks can find the answers. Technology – that abstract, shifting, supposedly value-free force – removes the burden of public duty. And the beauty of these machines and systems is that they have no memory, no fears, no hopes and, if it all goes wrong, no possibility of blood on their hands.

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