Theresa May visit reveals positives on Common Travel Area

Kenny and May more realistic than optimistic in tone about difficulties over ‘seamless’ Border

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the British prime minister Theresa May at Government Buildings. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the British prime minister Theresa May at Government Buildings. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Slowly, like a vast mountain emerging through an early-morning mist, the nature and scale of the task facing Ireland as it seeks to manage the problems presented by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union are becoming clearer.

With every summit and speech, every agreed statement, we learn a little more.

On Monday, when the British prime minister Theresa May came to Dublin for a short but important meeting with the Taoiseach, we learned a few things.

Things are looking reasonably positive for the maintenance of the Common Travel Area .

The Common Travel Area, which enables Irish and British people to move freely between each other’s countries, working, availing of public services, voting, and receiving welfare payments, was perhaps the biggest priority for the Irish Government.

And May’s remarks on Monday seem to suggest that the British are just as wedded to it as the Irish, laying out clearly that she wished to see the “reciprocal rights that our citizens enjoy in both countries to continue, including the rights guaranteed by the Belfast Agreement”.

Human rights elements

Irish politicians and civil servants have been beating a path around Europe to press their case that the Common Travel Area should, and can, under EU law outlast the British membership of the EU. They have been receiving a response that high-level sources describe as mixed but mostly positive.

The Common Travel Area is also important for the British. Its dissolution would create enormous headaches for London, not just in Northern Ireland but for the hundreds of thousands of British nationals in Ireland, and the half a million or so Irish people in the UK. There is likely to be enhanced co-operation on security and immigration matters, but neither side views this as especially problematic even if it is monstrously complex.

A more difficult subject is the future of any customs border. May has made clear that she expects the UK to leave the customs union in order to be able to negotiate trade agreements with non-EU countries (the EU negotiates as a bloc on behalf of members of the customs union).

Tariff

On Monday both leaders stressed they wanted to see a “seamless”, “frictionless” and “trouble-free” Border. But both then explicitly qualified their remarks. The only meaning to take from it was that the Border won’t be seamless, it will be “as seamless as possible”.

For all the words about co-operation and working together, this emerging reality was obvious yesterday.

Realistic

The Taoiseach was more forthright about this in his remarks afterwards, though he was more engaged and clearer than the British prime minister throughout.

He gave a more convincing and determined defence of his Government’s position on the US administration’s new immigration controls and the question of the visit to President Donald Trump. May confined herself to statements of her previously outlined positions. She delivered her lines, but without much enthusiasm.

May gave one more run out to her favourite – “there’ll be no return to the borders of the past”. On the borders of the future, however, she gave little away.

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