Ireland’s unique relationship with Britain pushed into the spotlight
Reality is there are no easy solutions to the Northern Ireland Border problem
Dublin Airport passport control: it seems difficult to see how those campaigning to leave the EU in order to “take back control” of Britain’s borders will be content with effectively outsourcing border controls to Ireland. Photograph: PA
The news this week that enhanced controls at Ireland’s external borders may be put in place after Brexit to avoid the reintroduction of a hard border in Northern Ireland has pushed the question of Ireland’s unique relationship with Britain into the spotlight.
Despite reassurance from the Government that information exchange and cooperation is already taking place between the two countries, the crucial difference post-Brexit is that Ireland would still be bound by EU free movement rules while Britain would most likely not. This means that EU nationals entering Ireland would be free to cross into Northern Ireland unchecked.
Although Ireland’s ambassador to Britain told a House of Lords committee last month that it was unlikely that many Europeans would be interested in travelling to Britain illegally, it seems difficult to see how those campaigning to leave the EU in order to “take back control” of Britain’s borders will be content with effectively outsourcing border controls to Ireland.
The Irish Government’s confirmation that it would be amenable to the proposal prompted disdain in many quarters. But the reality is there are no easy solutions to the Northern Ireland Border problem.
InevitableCharlie FlanaganDavid Davis
While Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness said this week there would be no bilateral deals between Ireland and Britain until article 50 was triggered, the reality is that informal bilateral discussions between the British and Irish government are already taking place given ongoing contact over the Common Travel Area (CTA).
How amenable will the EU be to a special deal between Ireland and the UK?
While the European Commission privately voiced opposition earlier this year to the prospect of Irish citizens being exempt from restrictions on in-work benefits – one of the key strands of the renegotiated settlement offered to David Cameron in February – officials appear to be taking a more sympathetic view to Ireland’s needs now that Britain has voted to leave.
Though early days, there is broad-based understanding for the specificities of the Northern Ireland issue, and while any agreement on the Border and CTA will need EU buy-in, much of the heavy lifting will be done in London, Dublin and Belfast, not Brussels.
One of the key objectives from the Irish side will be to retain the rights of Irish citizens to live and work in Britain in the future. Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire said this week that these rights should not be affected by Brexit.
But while Irish officials point out that the CTA, which predates the entry of both countries into the EU and is enshrined in protocol 20 of the Lisbon Treaty, the freedom of Irish citizens to live and work in Britain is not likely to be welcomed by other EU member states whose citizens are likely to face restrictions on travel to Britain.
Another complication for the Government are the concerns of those in Northern Ireland who voted to remain in the EU. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness met the European Parliament’s chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt, commissioner Phil Hogan and other senior figures in Brussels this week in a bid to highlight these concerns.
At a meeting of the Institute of International and European Affairs in Brussels, Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes put forward an innovative solution that would see the Irish Government pay Northern Ireland’s contribution to the EU budget to allow it to retain some kind of associate membership.
Similar questions about devolved administrations’ ability to retain EU membership are likely to surface at the Scottish National Party’s conference, which begins today. How far the Irish Government is prepared to go to represent Northern Ireland’s concerns remains to be seen as negotiations intensify.