“A detailed debate should take place on this important issue.”

Interesting editorial in the Irish Times today [subs req], picking up on a report within the paper itself on an extension of the Schengen agreement to the nine most recent EU states [subs req] – and those countries who have fully impemented that particular convention. The editorial proposes an alternative solution to the multiple dilemmas created by the Common Travel Area between the Irish and UK jurisdictions, in light of the planned e-border controls by the UK, rather than the solution which appears to be the subject of ongoing discussions between the two governments. – “It is clear that an e-border regime has been under lengthy consideration in the British Home Office and the Department of Justice here, but neither has as yet properly clarified exactly what is at stake.” From the editorial [subs req]

So far the [Irish] Government appears committed to match the emerging British e-border control system, based on extensive monitoring of travel movements and expensive watchlists of suspected persons, as a way of minimising the impact on Irish citizens. Minister for Justice Brian Lenihan acknowledges the deleterious effects of 9/11 and recognises that in reality identity papers are now required for those travelling from the Republic to Britain.

But that does not necessarily require this State to replicate the British system. Should the British government insist on applying border controls between Northern Ireland and Britain the question can justifiably be raised whether it would not be better for Ireland as a whole to join the EU-wide Schengen system of external border controls and internal free movement, in which nine new member states are shortly to participate.

This could be done through an initiative between the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, without prejudicing the British citizenship of Northern Ireland residents. It would enable citizens of both jurisdictions to extend their freedom to travel throughout Europe and be a cheaper option. It would also substantially reduce the damaging legal divergence between Ireland and the EU arising from our close relationship with a more sceptical UK.

There would be a number of objections to that particluar alternative solution from within the Executive for a start. And that’s before considering whether the administration we have would actually have the power to make any decisions on such matters – although that’s not always stopped some of them from grabbing the headlines.

The leader of the largest party in the Executive appears to have anticipated some of this and has already sought assurances from the Prime Minister that the e-border proposals would not be applied between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Additionally, the Irish Government have made it clear that maintaining the Common Travel Area is a key priority. A point made in today’s report [subs req]

Minister for Justice Brian Lenihan was not present at the meeting of his EU ministerial colleagues to witness the historic enlargement of the Schengen zone but Minister of State at the Department of Justice Seán Power, who did attend, said Ireland has no intention of following suit.

“Under the Schengen rules we’d be obliged to have border controls with Northern Ireland. That is one of the reasons we are not in Schengen,” explained a member of the Irish delegation, who noted that Britain has no current intentions to join the Schengen system.

The maintenance of the common travel area between Ireland and Britain remains the key priority for the Government.

Irish officials readily concede that the erection of border posts along the Border between the Republic and Northern Ireland is politically unthinkable, forcing Dublin to follow London’s lead when it comes to border policy.

And therein lies the difficulty for the Irish Government. Unless they abandon the CTA, or contemplate border posts between the Republic and Northern Ireland, they have no choice but to follow the UK’s lead on e-border controls. Doing nothing would force London’s hand, likely to mean the introdcution of those e-border controls between Northern Ireland and the UK, but that would also signify an abandonment of the CTA.

Anyway, as the Irish Times editorial argues – “A detailed debate should take place on this important issue.”

But in that debate it will be necessary to identify the real concerns of those involved, as the Irish Times report also notes

An all-island bid to join Schengen would also enable the Government to avoid setting up its own e-borders system, which could cost tens of millions of euro in fees.

It would also reaffirm to the Irish public that the Government, rather than Britain, is driving justice policy, according to Hugo Brady, an analyst at the London-based think tank Centre for European Reform.

Following on from Ireland’s decision to follow London and opt out of key parts of the EU Reform Treaty, it increasingly looks like Ireland is a small country latched to Britain like a koala on justice issues . . . [added emphasis]

“By choosing Schengen, Ireland would gain independence and an equal place at the EU table,” says Brady, who admits domestic politics in Britain make it highly unlikely London will join Schengen any time soon.

Given the benefits of joining the EU free travel area, perhaps it is time for Mr Lenihan to talk to unionists about the possibility of making an all-island bid to join Schengen.

And not just on justice policy.. but in other policy areas too.

Additionally, signing up to Schengen wouldn’t address some other concerns..