Memo to Boris Johnson: Why the Irish border isn't Camden and Islington

Camden Market. Not the Irish border

Boris Johnson yesterday dismissed concerns that leaving the customs union could lead to a hard Irish border by comparing it to driving from Camden to Islington in London. Here's why he's wrong

The foreign secretary yesterday sought to assuage concerns about the potential return of a hard border to the island of Ireland, drawing on his own experience of the congestion charge - actually introduced by Ken Livingstone - when he was Mayor of London.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We think that we can have very efficient facilitation systems to make sure that there's no need for a hard border, excessive checks at the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

"There's no border between Islington or Camden and Westminster, there's no border between Camden and Westminster, but when I was mayor of London we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people travelling between those two boroughs [through the congestion charge] without any need for border checks whatever."

So how accurate a comparison is this? Well...

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1 There has never been a history of decades of conflict in Camden and Islington requiring a militarised border and armed look-outs

Much of Ireland remembers border controls in place until the late 1990s, with smaller roads blockaded with the intention of making them impassable to regular traffic and bridges destroyed at unauthorised crossings. The border area in south Armagh, in particular, was overlooked by British Army surveillance posts which made for desirable targets for paramilitaries.

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These have never been in place between Camden, Islington and Westminster, largely because they are three parts of the same city created much arbitrarily in 1963 for the purposes of administrative ease. So Mr Johnson, the great historical scholar of the cabinet, might want to rethink this bit.

2 There are no checks on goods within Camden and Islington

You are free to transport pretty much what you wish, along as it's within the law, between Camden and Islington (see above bit about them being two arbitrary parts of the same city). This is not comparable with a post-Brexit Ireland where, if Mr Johnson gets his way and the UK leaves the customs union, some form of customs checking must be in place. Otherwise goods which may then be welcome in the UK but not meeting strict EU standards - say, the chlorinated chicken Liam Fox is so keen we guzzle relentlessly post-Brexit - could make it into the Republic and then on to the European mainland.

There are, of course, items for which there are a much bigger market for in Camden than other London boroughs - jewellery made of bicycle chains, t-shirts with pictures of aliens saying 'Take Me To Your Dealer' - but there's nothing stopping you from carting them over boundaries if you wish. Which is good, because...

3 Cameras are good at spotting number plates, not so hot at looking inside boots

Mr Johnson is right to say that "when I was mayor of London we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people travelling between those two boroughs", because we have had the technology for some time to recognise car number plates by camera. Unfortunately, in the absence of a customs union, any Irish border check is going to be less interested in whose car it is and more what's in it. And currently these cameras are not up to focusing in on the footwell of the passenger front seat and clocking whether that box is a homemade birthday cake or 5,000 illicit cigarettes.

It is, of course, possible that by March 2019 the UK will have developed this technology and have it installed and ready to go but, as a not-inconsiderable proportion of the nation's transport infrastructure is currently stalled on the basis it's a bit cold, it seems unlikely. Which of course is all irrelevant to Camden and Islington, because...

4 Camden and Islington are not leaving London, let alone a continent-wide customs unions

So it's a bit of a daft comparison, really.

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