In order to prevent a disaster for the Northern Irish, the Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland must be retained. Here is why the existence of an open borders area between both countries is so relevant and why it plays such an important part in the Brexit negotiations.
A Comment by Kilian McDonagh
In its recently published White Paper, the UK government lays out a plan for the “exit from and new partnership with the European Union”. Ireland features prominently at the beginning of the priorities outlined in the paper. The country, we are told, is “inescapably intertwined with the UK” through shared history, culture and geography. What the UK government really means by this, is that both countries’ interests are inescapably intertwined in Northern Ireland.
The Brexit paper briefly summarises the recently developed warmth between Ireland and the UK, largely resulting from the successful peace process following the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. The period of good will was capped off by Queen Elizabeth II’s state visit to Ireland in 2011, during which she addressed the Irish President and assembled guests in Dublin with a few words in Gaelic. A poignant moment marking the first visit of a British monarch to the area that is now the Republic of Ireland since before it gained independence in 1921.
What is the Common Travel Area And Why Do We Need One?
The UK government will do its utmost to ensure that Irish and British people will retain the right to move freely between and reside within either of the two countries in the future. It is a top priority for the UK that the Common Travel Area (CTA) which has existed between both countries since before they joined the EEC together in 1973 remains in place. This is specifically framed as an exception to a possible curtailment of free movement rights to be faced by other EU citizens after Brexit. But why is there a need for an open borders area between Ireland and the UK?
The UK’s 1949 Ireland Act, we are told in the paper, is the basis of this mutually beneficial agreement between both countries, whereby the right to vote in one another’s elections is also guaranteed (for those living in the other’s territory). What we are not told however, is that before 1949 there was no need for a bilateral travel, residency or reciprocal voting arrangement, because the Irish Free State was a dominion of the British Empire.
The reality of what is at stake in retaining the CTA only becomes apparent when we look specifically at Northern Ireland. When Ireland gained independence from the UK after a four year guerrilla war, it was on the condition that the six counties in the north east of the country, which contained most of the industry on the island and where the majority of the population considered itself British remained a part of the UK – which it does until this day.
Northern Ireland: As British as Finchley?
Margaret Thatcher once said when rubbishing the legitimacy of the Irish nationalists’ claim that the region was under foreign occupation: “Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley” (referring to a suburban area to the north of London). The reality of the situation is, however, somewhat different. Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, those born in Northern Ireland have had the right to choose to hold either British citizenship, Irish citizenship, or both. And in the white paper the UK government points out that it wants this state of affairs to continue.
The citizenship provision was added to the Good Friday Agreement in order to satisfy the demands of the Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, including terrorist groups who had fought a decades long paramilitary campaign to unite Northern Ireland with the rest of the island. It was also designed to appease the Irish republic, which in return abandoned its constitution’s territorial claim to Northern Ireland in a referendum in 1998.
To remove this right to Irish citizenship for those born in the north of the island would therefore be politically unthinkable for the UK, as it could conceivably lead to renewed armed conflict in Northern Ireland. The consequence of retaining the right to Irish citizenship in Northern Ireland is that the CTA must be retained. Irish citizens must keep the same residency and voting rights as British citizens in the UK as a whole. Otherwise the situation could arise that the Irish minority in Northern Ireland would no longer be guaranteed the same voting or residency rights within the country in which they were born. This would disenfranchise a large portion of Northern Ireland’s population and violate their basic human rights.
How Can the CTA Be Preserved?
The sense of urgency and importance attached to the open borders area is naturally shared by the Irish government. The challenge now is to work out an agreement which is acceptable to the other 26 EU countries, as the final Brexit deal will ultimately require the approval of all 27 remaining member states. During his recent trip to Warsaw, the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny failed to get an assurance from his Polish counterpart that Poland would support a special status for Irish citizens in post-Brexit UK. It’s seemingly their own citizens that are the main priority for EU member states in the Brexit negotiations.
The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180. Image source: “State visit to Áras an Uachtaráin by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh”, Irish Defence Forces, http://bit.ly/2kJ8yui, lizensiert unter Creative Commons license 2.0.: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.