Government keen to maintain US immigration preclearance facilities at Irish airports

‘Complete review’ of the Dublin and Shannon facilities will continue, officials say

Attorney General Máire Whelan: political sources say she was unambiguous in her advice to Ministers yesterday. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Attorney General Máire Whelan: political sources say she was unambiguous in her advice to Ministers yesterday. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

The Government is committed to maintaining the US immigration preclearance facilities operating at Dublin and Shannon airports, Ministers agreed yesterday.

Although Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his Cabinet again expressed their opposition to the newly announced immigration policies of the Trump administration, which block refugees and travellers from seven Muslim majority countries from entering the United States, they accepted the advice of the Attorney General that the Irish authorities had no jurisdiction over the implementation of those policies here.

The view is disputed by some lawyers and a number of civil liberties organisations. But political sources say Attorney General Máire Whelan was unambiguous in her advice to Ministers yesterday, telling them that the Irish Constitution or courts had no authority whatsoever over decisions made by US immigration officials in Dublin and Shannon airports.

Some Ministers have disputed her advice in the past, with Minister for Transport Shane Ross declining to accept her advice on an abortion Bill last year. However, on this occasion Mr Ross – who has responsibility for airports as part of his brief – was convinced by Ms Whelan’s clear advice.

Mr Ross told his colleagues that he was opposed to the decision of the Taoiseach to travel to Washington to meet US president Donald Trump for St Patrick’s Day, though like the rest of his Cabinet he does not believe that US preclearance facilities should be ended.

The “complete review” of the facilities – announced by the Taoiseach on Monday night – will continue, officials said, and is expected to be complete in two to three weeks. However, political sources were playing down its importance last night.

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Benefits

Ministers were strongly briefed by officials in recent days on the benefits that Ireland enjoys from the existence of the US preclearance units at Dublin and Shannon and several Ministers, including Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, asserted this in public statements yesterday. Officials suggested that many other countries would be “delighted” to take the facilities off Ireland.

The pre-clearance facilities mean that passengers travelling to the US through Dublin and Shannon can pass all US entry controls – immigration, customs and agriculture – so that when they arrive at US airports they are treated as domestic passengers.

The preclearance agreement between the two governments was signed in 2008 and was underpinned in Ireland by the Aviation (Preclearance) Act 2009.

The units are staffed by officers of the US Customs and Border Protection in Dublin and Shannon. They are not considered law enforcement officers and are not armed, according to a memo circulated among Ministers yesterday.

The only law enforcement officers are for the purposes of preclearance are gardaí.

Review

According to the Government briefing, a group of senior officials from both the Irish and US governments meet annually to review the operation of the agreement. The Preclearance Consultative Group, which includes representatives from the US Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration and from the Irish Department of Transport and Dublin and Shannon airports, is due to have its next meeting on March 1st.

Preclearance is also available at Shannon Airport for private jets travelling to the US, and is often used by travellers flying from European cities to the US to avail of the facilities.

More than a million people used the facilities at Dublin airport last year, with 200,000 doing so at Shannon.

There were reports yesterday of one person being turned back at preclearance at Dublin Airport, but the Government spokesman declined to comment on an individual case.