Reading through some old Wikipedia articles pointed me to an interesting exchange in the House of Commons, back in 1948. Ulster Unionist MPs Conolly Gage and Major Samuel Gillmor Haughton rose during an adjournment debate to complain about the requirement for a permit or passport to be presented for travel between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Mr Gage opens by highlighting the inconvenience of this arrangement :
As everyone knows, Ulster is as much a part of the United Kingdom as Devon or Cornwall; yet any person wanting to visit a sick child, or wanting 10 go on urgent business from Belfast to Liverpool, has to obtain a travel permit.
He goes on to complain about the fact that any danger posed by “aliens” to GB is not deemed to be serious when it comes to the welfare of Northern Ireland residents :
There is another matter with regard to this. The control is imposed at the ports of Northern Ireland, and so it is really for the undesirable alien that it is desired to exclude from Great Britain. It does seem rather hard, if they are so undesirable, they we should have to have them in Belfast, because the check gives no protection at all there. It seems absurd that the protection which this check is supposed to afford to Liverpool should be denied to Belfast or any port in Ulster.
Finally, Mr Gage proposes border controls :
I would only point out that the system of a check on the Border is possible. I know it has been difficult to check all contraband on the land frontier as compared with the ports, but if it can be done in the case of smugglers, then it can be done in the case of other people.
It is worth reading the rest of this exchange, not least for reference to Stormont’s “Safeguarding of Employment Act”. Eventually, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, Mr Younger, responds. I’ve picked out some of the salient quotes :
I should like to start by emphasising that the restrictions are not really very great. The objection to them is, I think, partly on sentimental or loyalist grounds—that is, an objection to being treated any differently from other persons residing in the United Kingdom. The material objections are not very considerable.
Complaints of delays are dismissed out of hand :
.. but it is not a serious hardship. There is no difficulty caused to anyone who wishes to get these documents and a relatively limited delay is caused by the embarkation system.
Mr Younger goes on to explain the need for the system.
The difference in the positions of the two countries during the war has led to a different attitude on the part of the two governments to certain nationalities, and it is no longer possible to have the same tie-up as there was before the war between the alien policies of the two countries. I would not like to suggest that this is entirely due to the situation in Eire, for we here are in a very special position with regard to aliens. We have a scheme of effecting the admission of Poles and European volunteer workers with which one could not be sure that the Eire Government would wish to be associated, and until there is a community of interest on these questions of aliens, it is difficult to see that there can be as close an identity of aliens policy as before the war.
Finally, the Under-Secretary addresses the issue of establishing checks at the border.
It is suggested that a check could be made on the land frontier. It is perfectly true that Customs control is carried out, but it is a different thing from the sort of control that would be required to prevent the admission of undesirable aliens. I believe the frontier is about 180 miles long, and the check points are relatively few. I happen to know, from my own personal experience, that this was an acute security problem during the war, and an intensive study of the possibility of control was made. At one time, although I do not know if this was confirmed, the commander in Northern Ireland thought he could not have an effective control except with four divisions. That gives some idea of the difficulty. It is perfectly true that many continental countries with long frontiers have to put up with inefficient control, but there is no reason why we should do that when we have a port of embarkation where control can be effected.
This system continued to exist for a full seven years following the war.
I think it’s worth highlighting in the context of the present debate about the options available to the UK government concerning the Irish border. For sure, the scenario that existed in 1945 is very different to what we are facing at the moment. Nonetheless, it is a matter of historical fact that in the past, the British government has seen it fit and convenient to impose identity checks on travellers between the Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It follows that there is no reason why it would not be minded to do so again if it felt the circumstances required it.