The East-West Relationship (pre- and post-Brexit)

A lot has (rightly) been written about the effect of Brexit on the border and the economic, social and political impact this will have on North-South relations. While there has also been discussion of the East-West, British-Irish relationship, I think it merits some more analysis.

There is a lot to consider: the extent of trade between the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, the flow of people in both directions, the rights that have accrued over the decades as part of the Common Travel Area (including permanent residency), the various business, political and cultural associations between Ireland and Britain, and so on.

Just a few years ago, David Cameron talked about the “All time high for Anglo-Irish relations”. If the UK really does leave the EU—which looks very likely—there is an opportunity for a new British-Irish relationship to be established, in order to build on the gains made through the period of joint EU membership. Likewise, there is a risk that if special efforts are not made, there will be a loss of communication and potentially weaker co-operation in some areas.

For this blog post, I will just focus on the Common Travel Area (CTA), as it has been mentioned a few times as part of the formal Brexit discussions. But I hope to follow up on some other East-West themes subsequently.

The CTA has been discussed on Slugger O’Toole on multiple occasions but it is worth digging further into the issue as it is potentially at risk in the Brexit negotiations and it is about a whole lot more than just travel.

The CTA does permit free movement within Ireland and the UK, but only for nationals. Third country nationals are meant to have permission to cross the border and to carry passports, even if they are not always asked to show them. The basic travel aspect of the CTA is unlikely to be greatly hindered by any version of Brexit, as there will undoubtedly still be visa-free travel for tourism and to visit family between the UK and EU.

Beyond travel, the CTA is a political arrangement that grants the rights to reside, work, access services and vote in each other’s countries. This is essentially a form of shared British-Irish citizenship. It predates the shared EU citizenship between the Republic of Ireland and the UK, and—in common with EU citizenship—it grants additional rights and entitlements without taking any away. Although EU citizenship confers many of the same rights, some of the CTA rights go further: notably the rights to residence are not tied to employment, and the right to vote in national parliamentary elections is not granted to EU citizens. One of the questions of Brexit is whether the shared British-Irish citizenship can re-emerge as a distinct arrangement once EU citizenship is ended for the British.

Practical consequences of the CTA policy over the decades are that Ireland and the UK have a shared labour market, with many people moving seamlessly between both jurisdictions as part of their careers. At various points, the UK jobs market has provided an important safety valve for unemployment in Ireland. Some industries—even including horse-racing—operate on a British-Irish basis. Arguably Ireland has more to lose than the UK from the loss of this aspect of the CTA.

Both the UK and Irish governments have indicated that preserving the CTA arrangements is a policy goal, and the CTA has been acknowledged by the EU as part of the “Ireland” dimension of Brexit.

A complicating factor is of course the fact that some people in Northern Ireland only hold an Irish passport and any block on the rights of Irish passport-holders in the UK would massively disrupt the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, which permits everyone in Northern Ireland to choose a British or Irish passport, or both. There is an outside risk that Northern Ireland people who only hold Irish passports could be refused access to some public services in Britain unless some other ID is created.

This situation is not new for the EU. Many Moldavians have Romanian passports although Moldova is outside the EU. Ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries, including non-EU states, are given passports by Hungary. And so on. Generally speaking, the rights of EU passport holders are greater when the people involved are also resident in an EU country, so the existence of tens of thousands of EU citizens outside its borders is not such a major issue for the EU.

A problem with the CTA is that is not codified in a formal agreement but has simply developed over time and it exists as custom and practice rather than through a treaty, although one legal foundation for the CTA is the UK’s Ireland Act 1949, which declares that Irish people in the UK are neither fish nor fowl in terms of British citizenship.

More accurately, Section 2 (1) states: “It is hereby declared that, notwithstanding that the Republic of Ireland is not part of His Majesty’s dominions, the Republic of Ireland is not a foreign country for the purposes of any law in force in any part of the United Kingdom […] and references in any Act of Parliament, other enactment or instrument whatsoever, whether passed or made before or after the passing of this Act, to foreigners, aliens, foreign countries, and foreign or foreign-built ships or aircraft shall be construed accordingly.”

In other words, Irish people were declared as not foreigners or aliens in the UK.

When our politicians talk about preserving the CTA post-Brexit it is not clear to me that they have the full extent of the existing rights in mind. There is a strong possibility that a written British-Irish agreement will be needed if the rights associated with the CTA are to be preserved after Brexit. This might make a flexible political arrangement into something more rigid. But it would also usefully clarify the shared citizenship dimension.

Some might object to the whole idea of joint British-Irish citizenship. But I’m not suggesting something new to be created. I’m simply observing that the set of shared citizenship rights has existed for many years and it makes much more sense to talk about the CTA issue in terms of “citizenship” or “rights” rather than “travel”.

Nationalists (on both sides) may wonder whether joint British-Irish citizenship dilutes the purity of their national identity or affects their sovereignty. The quick answer is No.

What might be gained by recognising the shared citizenship implied by the CTA? For one thing, it might help calm nerves and restore some balance to Northern Ireland politics in the wake of Brexit. British-Irish relations have never been better and it would be a shame to allow Brexit to reverse decades of progress on the East-West relationship. It would be good to send a clear signal that British-Irish political, cultural and familial ties will continue unabated post-Brexit. Economic ties will continue too, albeit “abated” (if that’s a word) by whatever distance the UK puts between itself and the EU’s single market and customs union.

Recognising the Common Travel Area as about citizenship rights would also be a comfort to the many hundreds of thousands of British and Irish people currently living in the other country because even if the UK retains some kind of customs union with the EU, that won’t solve the potential loss of rights for many people.

Is it Irish government policy that, post-Brexit, all the Irish community in Great Britain should take up British passports? Or UK policy for the many British living in Ireland to become Irish citizens? I doubt it. Quite separate from post-Brexit border arrangements, there is a need for a new British-Irish treaty to safeguard the secret joint British-Irish citizenship that has existed for 60 years or more (code-named the Common Travel Area).

Lecturer in Public Policy and Public Management at Ulster University. Researching economic inequality, public value creation, and societal wellbeing. On Twitter @natpolicy