In the Brexit propaganda battle the hare is now being raised not of imposing controls on the Irish border but of geographically more convenient checks between the island or Ireland and the island of Great Britain. While the Irish Times quotes “official sources” in Dublin bringing up the issue again, the piece invokes a report by the House of Commons’ Northern Ireland Committee that discusses it.
The Commons committee warned in a report entitled Northern Ireland and the EU Referendum that imposing controls along the land Border, which is crossed by up to 30,000 commuters a day, would cause considerable disruption.
“An alternative solution might be to strengthen the border between the island of Ireland and the British mainland. There are fewer crossing points to enforce and it would be less disruptive as there are already checks in place,” the report says.
This solution has obvious appeal in Dublin. But it raises uncomfortable memories of the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1974 which introduced exclusion orders which barred anyone suspected of terrorist involvement from either part of Ireland from GB. The measure was anathema to Unionists but they were powerless to prevent it. There was a practical logic to the orders, given the open land border and the concentration of undesirables in the North.. Could a similar logic apply in the event of Brexit?
The Irish Times report implies that it might have British backing. But this is not what the actual report says.( para 79) It’s worth quoting the relevant passage.
Some airlines flying between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK already subject passengers to identity checks and these could be made more robust and extended to relevant ports such as Holyhead and Stranraer with relative ease. The UUP told us they had been told by the Government that it did not envisage policing the border with the Republic and that the Government’s preferred solution would be to put in place a more robust system of checks at relevant ports and airports on the mainland. Mike Nesbitt told us: “The Prime Minister indicated pretty clearly that it would not be on the physical separation of Northern Ireland from the Republic but it is more likely to be at Stranraer, Cairnryan, Heathrow, Gatwick, our ports and our airports.”
Sharing a border policy with the Republic of Ireland would negate the need to impose a hard border between Northern Ireland and the South or with the mainland. There is already a considerable amount of shared policy in this area. In addition to the CTA, since 2014, citizens of China and India can enter the UK and Republic of Ireland with a single visa. However, the Republic’s policy is constrained by its EU membership.
80.There must be doubts about the extent to which, in the event of a Brexit, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic could be effectively policed and the disruption to those who cross the border for work or study would be considerable.However, imposing security checks for those travelling between parts of the UK would also be highly undesirable. In the event of a Brexit, an arrangement that maintains a soft land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic but which does not see restrictions imposed on travel within the UK would need to be a priority.
Is isn’t clear what such an “ arrangement “ could be – other than checks at GB ports and airports of entry. From experience this would mean setting up control points and a separate queue manned by the UK Border Force for people coming in from NI and the Republic where they’d be required to show their passports and with customs channels behind the points which are currently for non EU or EEA passengers. This would resemble what happens on entry to the UK from the Schengen area. It’s no great inconvenience but you can see why the Leave side plays it down. It would be bound to dent support for Brexit among unionists.
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