Irish exceptionalism wins through over the common travel area

The issues of British and Irish citizenship are for both sorts of Irish, nowadays largely symbolic and about identity, which they obssess about but which mystifies the English, who harp on the practical points . Until that is, a threat was raised to the common travel area. This was quietly lifted yesterday. It happened as the Commons staged a fascinating debate on the spider’s web of links between “these islands” in the final stages of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill . The particular Irish (north and south) interest in the Bill was to avoid the unique status in Britain of Irish people becoming downgraded more or less by accident because of new restrictions on foreign immigration. “British Unionists” of course are Siamese twins with southern Irish passport holders because of the facts of geography. The Irish, note, are not regarded as foreign in the 1949 Act, passed when the Republic cut its last links with the Commonwealth. Since then , tightening up through the British Nationality Act and successive anti terrorism Acts have pulled away from British- Irish exceptionalism, while the GFA has pulled in the opposite direction, towards interchangeability of citizenship. Suddenly last year, the Common travel area came under threat. That threat remained until yesterday, when a requirement for passports be shown on entry to GB from Ireland was withdrawn. This of course was politically explosive because of the near-impossibility of distinguishing between Irish passport holders entering from the Republic and British and Irish passport holders entering from NI. It has taken quite a while for the penny to drop. In the end, Immigration Minister Phil Woolas’s announcement of the withdrawal of the passport requirement was a grand fanfare to introduce a modest theme. Will the Republic now remove its requirement for British passports at Dublin airport etc? And there’s just one other wee detail. From the Irish Times story.

The Home Office in London has maintained: “There are no plans to introduce fixed controls on the land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland or on routes from the Crown dependencies to the United Kingdom.”

But there never were any such plans. The plan was for “checks, ” not fixed controls, on entry into NI and between Great Britain and the other island. However I say you’d still be advised to carry a passport from one island to another and not just when Ryanair requires it, whether is bears the harp or the royal arms. The earlier debate on citizenship itself is worth a browse, starting with the speech by Andrew Mackinlay, MP for Thurrock in Essex and unofficially, for God and Ulster. (Scroll through the amendment details to reach Mackinlay)

The Home Office, and now the Ministry of Justice, have never really understood the complicated, but unique and extremely interesting, constitutional relationship between, and shared history of, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Perhaps they should have understood it, however, because, after all, we are told that this legislation has emerged from a review by one of our former Attorneys-General. He was supposed to do an in-depth job, but this topic obviously never crossed his desk; it was not on the radar screen.

I actually raised this with Lord Goldsmith myself, but he reacted with that time honoured English blindness that has bedevilled our history and only gives way, if at all, when the crisis is reached. He thought it might be possible in GB to distinguish for the purpose of citizens’ privilege between Irish passport holders born and resident in NI from those born and resident in ROI. Only if you put averyone through a few hours worth of background checks, like an unfortunate stateless Somali. I may have put him right on that one. But on the narrow point of Irish citizens born after 1949 wanting to be recognised as British as well, I’m afraid Mackinlay lost his largely symbolic point – for now.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London