Newton Emerson: Post-Brexit Irish Sea border exists already

Border Force has gradually been building a security check between Ireland and UK

Border Force  staff check passports at Gatwick Airport. It is the law enforcement command within the Home Office responsible for the security of the UK border by enforcing immigration and customs controls on people and goods entering the UK. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty

Border Force staff check passports at Gatwick Airport. It is the law enforcement command within the Home Office responsible for the security of the UK border by enforcing immigration and customs controls on people and goods entering the UK. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty

 

Last weekend, my wife flew from Belfast to Bristol to visit friends.

Despite travelling on an internal UK flight and carrying a full British passport, she was stopped on arrival by Border Force – the UK’s immigration police – and questioned in a bizarre and dubious manner.

The Border Force officer was suspicious about a Chinese visa in my wife’s passport – doubly so when he established it was to attend an engineering conference. There is a Canadian-owned aircraft factory in Belfast, he noted, and an Airbus plant in Bristol. Did my wife realise the Chinese are building their own airliners? Did she know there are concerns about theft of intellectual property?

“There are people downstairs who would love to talk to you,” he added, ominously.

Like most people from Northern Ireland, my wife knows the way to handle an interrogation is to stare at an imaginary spot on the wall. So with a poker face and one-word replies she was eventually allowed through after, she estimates, 10 minutes of this xenophobic nonsense.

The People’s Liberation Army has many talents but disguising its spies as white women from Belfast is unlikely to be among them.

Because the officer maintained his own poker face, my wife cannot discount the possibility he was joking, chatting or showing off.

There is something tragicomic about guarding the frontier at Bristol Airport, where the terminal is so small just referring to “downstairs” sounds like a desperate boast.

Whatever the officer’s motivations, the question is how any UK citizen can be stopped by immigration while travelling within their own country.

Apart from the indignity, what is the point? It is not as if you can be deported.

The obvious explanation would be the UK-Ireland Common Travel Area and the catch-22 behind it, whereby British and Irish citizens cannot be asked for their passports, although in order to prove their citizenship it is wise to carry their passports.

There might also be a vague sense of Northern Ireland anti-terrorism measures, in this case involving the Irish Sea security border we all pretend does not exist.

Terrorism Act 2000

What happened to my wife is certainly the future of the Common Travel Area, yet in origin and for the moment it has nothing to do with it – while the link to Northern Ireland security concerns is surprisingly thin.

The power of Border Force officers over British citizens travelling within the UK comes from the Terrorism Act 2000.

This was meant to be the UK’s post-Troubles anti-terror legislation, moving the focus away from emergency powers for Northern Ireland and on to a more general and permanent footing.

It originally permitted police, immigration and customs officers to stop, question and detain UK citizens at ports and airports only while transiting in or out of Britain or Northern Ireland – creating an internal sea border, which was a specific Northern Ireland anti-terrorism measure.

The came 9/11. Within two months, the Act had been amended to apply to all air and sea travel within the UK, including within Britain. Now it looked more like an emergency measure against Islamic terrorism, focused on the safety of aircraft.

There the law rested while the mission creep began. Northern Ireland residents were familiar with an internal security border, so few complained. Various terrorist scares and incidents kept travellers within Britain acquiescent to growing Border Force intrusion.

Matters did not come to a head until 2014, the year of the Scottish referendum, when checks of flights from London to Scotland became spuriously politicised – especially when those being stopped were MPs.

Indignant questions were asked in the Commons but the Home Office pointed to the Terrorism Act and that MPs had done this to themselves.

An odd feature of the internal border regime against UK citizens is that while it is policed by immigration and customs officers, it is not about detecting immigration and customs offences – its sole legal premise is apprehending terrorists.

Hapless performance

The system has its own catch-22. A UK citizen should only be stopped, questioned or detained where there are grounds to suspect they are a terrorist, yet to determine there are no grounds for suspicion, they may be stopped, questioned and detained.

After almost two decades on the statute books, this has plainly been accepted.

UK immigration minister Caroline Nokes appeared before MPs on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Tuesday to answer questions on passports, Brexit and the Border.

She was ridiculed for a hapless performance in which she confused basic points about British and Irish passport eligibility and admitted to having never read the Belfast Agreement.

However, she was able to give a crystal clear assurance that the Common Travel Area will continue after Brexit, despite concerns about Northern Ireland becoming a back door for immigration, because third-country nationals can be detected at ports and airports and the capacity to do this already exists.

Indeed it does – and it operates Bristol fashion.

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