The British government has reaffirmed its commitment to maintaining the common travel area and reciprocal rights enjoyed by Irish and British citizens in both countries after Brexit.
In a White Paper outlining its negotiating objectives, the government says it will aim to make any customs controls on the Border as frictionless as possible and will avoid any action which undermines the political settlement in Northern Ireland.
“Ireland is our closest neighbour, and the only country with which the UK shares a land border,” it says. “Our countries are intertwined through our shared history, culture and geography, and through our shared commitment to the Belfast Agreement, that provides the cornerstone to political stability in Northern Ireland . . . the government is determined to protect and build on the strong historic ties between the UK and Ireland as the UK prepares to leave the EU.”
The document notes that Irish citizens have had a special status in Britain since long before both countries joined the common market, and that these rights are guaranteed in the Ireland Act 1949 and reflected in the British Nationality Acts.
“Both the UK and Irish governments have set out their desire to protect this reciprocal treatment of each other’s nationals once the UK has left the EU. In particular, in recognition of their importance in the Belfast Agreement, the people of Northern Ireland will continue to be able to identify themselves as British or Irish, or both, and to hold citizenship accordingly,” it says.
The decision to leave the EU customs union has made customs controls of some kind on the Border all but inevitable, because Irish authorities will be obliged by the EU to enforce the European external customs border.
The White Paper stops short of making a firm commitment on border controls but says both governments will aim to make controls as unobtrusive as possible.
“As with the common travel area, we are committed to working with the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to minimise administrative burdens, and to find a practical solution that keeps the border as seamless and frictionless as possible, recognising the unique economic, social and political context of the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland,” it says.
The document adds some detail to the 12 negotiating objectives outlined by the prime minister last month but restates her threat to walk away from the EU with no deal if the talks go badly.
“The Government is clear that no deal for the UK is better than a bad deal for the UK. In any eventuality we will ensure that our economic and other functions can continue, including by passing legislation as necessary to mitigate the effects of failing to reach a deal,” it says.
The Taoiseach will travel to Malta on Friday for an informal meeting of EU leaders which is likely to discuss the impending triggering of the article 50 process by the British government.
Speaking in London, Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar welcomed the commitments on the common travel area and on maintaining reciprocal rights of Irish and British citizens.
“ So the language is good but turning that into reality is going to be somewhat trickier,” he said.
Mr Varadkar was in London for a meeting with his British counterpart, Damian Green. He said they discussed “allowing British and Irish people to live, work, access pension and welfare and public services in those countries as though we were citizens of both and both governments are committed to retaining that.
“What we’re going to do is flesh out the details. We have an existing agreement from 2004 on social security security, a bilateral agreement, and that’s the type of thing we may need to update, taking account of the fact that Britain is going to leave the EU. And at that point European laws will start to not apply,” he said.