Bertie Ahern made an important announcement this week about the impact on Ireland of Britain’s e-borders scheme.
The UK Government is putting huge resources into its e-border
control system. We have been co-operating with the British authorities
and have been kept abreast of what they are doing. They are engaged in
a ten year programme which, while changes will not be made overnight,
raises significant issues for us. After 11 September 2001 some of the
major advantages of the common travel area were lost, as passports or
photo identification became a requirement in most locations. The
potential impact of the electronic border control on the travel of
Irish citizens was discussed by the Government yesterday. We are
considering a proposed Irish border information system. That will be
the subject of a memorandum to Government next year. The British
authorities have kept us fully informed. There have been a number of
questions in regard to this, the most important being the impact on the
land border, the issue being raised this morning. There are no plans to introduce any controls on the land border between North and South. (Oireachtas)
I have been to trying to tease out the implications of this for some time, and there are three ways it could work out in practice.
1. E-border controls between UK and the Republic of Ireland including the land border.
This would be in line with the basic logic of the e-borders scheme, but would be strongly resisted by Irish nationalists, and might well prove unworkable given the length of the border. It seems to have been ruled out.
2. E-border controls between the islands of Britain and Ireland.
According to Mark Devenport, this is one option that has been suggested. This was the situation that prevailed during the Second World War, as Eric Waugh notes, but it would be strongly opposed by unionists.
3. Common e-border around Britain and Ireland.
Ths would require London and Dublin to operate a common policy with regard to travellers from outside Britain and Ireland, but would allow for free travel within Britain and Ireland. In the absence of option 1, this seems to be the preferred unionist choice. However, some nationalists would object to it as being a re-absorbtion of Ireland within the UK.
To my mind, the force of this objection would depend on how equitable any arrangement turned out to be.
Ahern’s statement would seem to suggest that option 3 is on the cards. There is no need for Ireland to adopt its own e-border scheme in response to Britain’s unless the two are intended to work jointly, as a common external e-border.
If that is the case, there is no obvious need for a second layer of e-border controls between Britain and Ireland, Indeed, what would be the point of adopting a common external e-border if there were?
Yet there has so far been no clear indication that British-Irish e-borders controls would be dropped if option 3 were adopted.
The second issue with option 3 concerns the exchange of information. At one stage it was thought that Ireland would have to introduce identity cards in order to make a common system work.
However, the Irish Times reported in 2005 that the British wanted access to an Irish identity card database, but were not prepared to offer access to the British database in return.
Ian Paisley sought and received a specific assurance from the Home Secretary that information from the British database would not be shared with the Irish Government as part of a cross-border arrangement. Ironically, unionists are now coming round to the idea of a cross-border arrangement to prevent the introduction of e-border controls between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Any e-borders arrangement between the UK and Ireland should offer clear benefits to both countries, and any exchange of information should be on an equitable basis, it’s not yet clear that those conditions have been fulfilled.