Proposals that would see non-Irish people forced to get an electronic visa waiver before crossing the border are not yet finalised as far as the Government is conerned, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.
Speaking following talks with Northern secretary Brandon Lewis in Dublin on Wednesday, Mr Coveney said the proposals were still in the legislative process in the UK and that Ireland would continue making representations on the issue.
“I think it is important to say that this is not legislation that is finalised yet, there was a vote in the House of Commons last night but my understanding is this is likely to go back to the Lords and back to the Commons again,” he said.
“What we have looked for here is an exemption for any non-Irish or British nationals who are resident in Ireland to be able to cross without having to get an ETA (Electronic Travel Authorisation), but as I say, that’s an ongoing conversation and as far as we’re concerned, that legislative process hasn’t concluded yet.”
Mr Lewis said the proposed changes to the UK immigration system did not envisage checks at the Border. “Nobody’s going to be stopped at the Border, we’ve been very clear about that, there will not be any Border checks, the [Common Travel Area] is going to be protected,” he said.
MPs at Westminster on Tuesday night voted to reinstate the requirement of a US-style visa waiver for non-Irish EU citizens crossing the Border as part of the proposed regime. The British government challenged an amendment introduced in the House of Lords, which would have exempted Northern Ireland from the legislation.
Mr Coveney – who met Mr Lewis under the auspices of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference at Farmleigh House in Dublin – said on Tuesday night following the Commons’ vote that the Irish position had been “ignored”.
He said that since the peace process was agreed, the relationship between North and South “has been based on uninterrupted travel opportunities and movement of people and we think that’s worth protecting”.
“Northern Ireland, and the island of Ireland in terms of the relationships between North and South, is a very unusual construct and series of relationships and treaties and agreements,” he said, adding that it was “not for the first time we’ll be asking for special treatment to try to protect that relationship”.
Mr Lewis said the decision to move ahead with the ETA legislation had nothing to do with reported concerns in the British government about whether Ukrainian refugees could cross into the UK. The plan had been in development for years and was "completely separate" to the Ukraine crisis, he said.
The measure could affect as many as 645,000 non-Irish nationals living in the Republic - almost 13 per cent of the population, which will increase again with the arrival of Ukrainians fleeing the invasion by Russia.
Sinn Féin reaction
Speaking in the Dáil, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the proposal would create "a disgraceful situation" which undermined the Belfast Agreement and Common Travel Area.
“It creates significant restrictions on freedom of movement across our island,” she said.
Ms McDonald said she found it “wholly unacceptable” for a Polish person who lived and worked in Lifford, Co Donegal, would need papers to travel to Strabane, Co Tyrone, and that this was the reality “or so many people living in our Border region”.
She urged the Taoiseach to intervene with British prime minister Boris Johnson and "to call this out".
Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath said the Government stood “foursquare behind the Common Travel Area and the open Border in all respects. We do not in any way support or endorse the decision that was taken in the House of Commons. We have serious concerns about the proposal for an electronic travel authorisation system.
“We do not believe it is either practical or fair to seek to distinguish between EU citizens from another member state versus Irish citizens for example going over and across the Border.”
The SDLP’s Lilian Seenoi-Barr, the only elected councillor in the North from a minority ethnic background, said Westminster’s Nationalities and Borders Bill will lead to more “racial profiling” and stigmatizing of minorities.
“It is a racist bill,” she said. “It will strengthen the invisible hard border that already exists for non-Irish and non British citizens.”
Ms Seenoi-Barr, a former asylum seeker from Kenya, added: “People like myself, who are black and brown, will be suspect communities. We will be asked to prove that we have the right to be on this island. How else can you tell if someone is Irish or British?”
SDLP South Belfast MP Claire Hanna said the proposed legislation would be “hugely disruptive” for non-Irish or UK citizens living on the island, while damaging the North’s tourism industry.
“This is a terrible piece of legislation overall, with a horrible approach to refugee and asylum issues,” she said, adding that it went “against the spirit” of the Common Travel Area.
Regarding Westminster’s proposed amnesty for Troubles-era legacy crimes, mooted last year in the face of a backlash from victims groups and others, Mr Lewis said the move had not proceeded because the government wanted to consult with parties and civil society bodies in Northern Ireland.
“We want to bring something forward that helps people of Northern Ireland get to the truth and get information,” he said, adding that he would not put a timeframe on that.
Mr Coveney said the issue could not be forgotten "because the current status quo in terms of getting the truth and securing prosecutions and so on isn't as it should be for many families and victims groups". He said the Irish Government's position was that the strictures of the Stormont House agreement on legacy cases was the agreed position.
However, he added: “We also have accepted that if some want to move in a different direction, we’ll listen to those arguments and see if we can agree in places to move forward. We’re still very open to that engagement and partnership.”
On comparisons drawn by British prime minister Boris Johnson between the Brexit vote and the Ukranian resistance to Russia's invasion, Mr Coveney said Mr Johnson had clarified them and that his spokespeople had recognised "that's not a good comparison to have in the same sentence".
A joint communique issued by the ministers after the meeting said they had discussed the development of the British-Irish relationship in the coming years, including "potential synergies" between the UK's levelling up plan and Ireland's National Development Plan.
It noted “with regret” the developments at Stormont since it last met in December and reiterated commitments from both governments to the functioning of the political institutions established by the Belfast Agreement.