Emails between government technicians who have been carrying out the painstaking months-long process reveal they endured a “nightmare” trying to definitively map out all roads, paths and dirt tracks that traverse the 500km frontier.
As well as technical limitations, confusion reigned over crossings where the Border runs up the middle of roads, juts in and out of routes or where roads are privately owned on one side and publicly maintained on the other. The findings may come as little comfort to politicians advocating a technology-based solution to avoiding a hard border in the event of the UK pulling out of the customs union when it leaves the EU next year.
The joint-mapping exercise involving the Department of Transport and the North’s Department of Infrastructure started last year.
It came to light after being referred to in minutes of a meeting of transport chiefs, under the heading ‘Brexit’, released following a freedom of information request.
Newly-disclosed documents charting the process since then show: the border runs along the middle of 11 roads — more than twice the number originally believed; the frontier meets in the middle of at least three bridges; and it dissects two ferry crossings.
On one same section of the Dublin to Belfast motorway, traffic travelling in one direction is in the North while those travelling the opposite direction are in the south, the documents also released under freedom of information reveal.
It is “half North and half south”, an official says.
Previous estimates put the number of road crossings between Ireland and Northern Ireland — the UK’s only land border with the EU — at 275, with the exact figure never officially established.
However, in one of the final emails over recent weeks between Dublin and Belfast, signing off on the first agreed count, an official concludes: “I’m now getting 208 border crossings in total, hope you are too.”
The final figure will confirm there are more border crossings in Ireland than the 137 along the entire border between the EU and all the countries to the east of the bloc. The emails show officials immediately ran into difficulties when they began working last November over differing classifications between Belfast and Dublin on whether roads were public or private.
“It’s almost impossible... due to the variation in this on each side,” said one.
Among a volley of emails depicting frustration and bewilderment, an officials seeks an evening phonecall to agree classifications, saying it would be “best get these things straight in my own head before I start confusing others”.
In another, an exasperated Northern official complains about “frustrating” problems with the technology being used. Symbols pin-pointing the crossings were not accurate when zooming out to a “reasonable scale”.
“Nightmare!” she exclaims, to which her southern counterpart responds: “That is a nightmare… You must be tearing your hair out at this point!”
By January, a first draft was completed, but problems remained on how to represent roads with the border running down the middle.