Britain is seeking to shift the frontline of immigration controls to Ireland’s ports and airports to avoid having to introduce a “hard border” between north and south after the UK leaves the European Union, the Guardian has learned.
The Northern Ireland secretary, James Brokenshire, has told the Guardian that London and Dublin will work to strengthen Ireland’s external borders in order to combat illegal migration into the UK once it leaves the European Union.
In an interview, Brokenshire said there was now a “high level of collaboration on a joint programme of work” between the two states to control immigration.
“We have put in place a range of measures to further combat illegal migration working closely with the Irish government,” Brokenshire said. “Our focus is to strengthen the external border of the common travel area [CTA], building on the strong collaboration with our Irish partners.”
The CTA is a unique arrangement that allows for full freedom of movement between people from Ireland and Britain on both islands.
After Britain’s vote to leave the EU in June, concern mounted that to control immigration, measures would have to be imposed on the 300-mile border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.
Any such border controls would probably be seen as a violation of the Good Friday agreement and a provocation in a region that has only relatively recently put violence behind it.
Shifting the onus of immigration control to Irish entry points such as Dublin airport and Rosslare port would avoid this. However, it would also make a mockery of claims by the Brexit camp that leaving the EU would enable Britain to “take back control of its borders”.
Brokenshire said: “We are already working closely with the Irish government and other members of the common travel area to prevent people from seeking to evade UK immigration controls from entering via another part of the CTA.
There is a high level of collaboration on a joint programme of work. This includes investment in border procedures; increased data sharing to inform immigration and border security decisions; passenger data systems enabling the collection and processing of advance passenger information; and harmonised visa processes.”
The measures will be aimed primarily at non-Europeans seeking entry into the CTA. Politicians on all sides of the divide on the island of Ireland have expressed concern that Irish border towns such as Dundalk could become the new Calais if people-traffickers trying to send migrants into the UK target the Irish Republic as a “jump-off point” into Northern Ireland.
Precedents already exist for this Anglo-Irish collaborative model: Indian and Chinese visitors are subject to a system whereby they apply for a single visa, valid for travel in both Ireland and the UK.
The joint Anglo-Irish border procedures will not be able to stem the arrival of EU nationals, as they will retain the right to free movement to live and work in the Irish Republic.
However, this point is seen as moot: officials believe few EU citizens will want to come and work illegally in the UK after Brexit. “The numbers would be very small,” said one diplomatic source familiar with Brexit discussions.
The Fine Gael-led coalition government in Dublin has confirmed it is in negotiations with London to better share intelligence to tighten immigration controls for people from outside Britain and Ireland.
Ireland’s foreign minister, Charles Flanagan, said he welcomed Brokenshire’s commitment to an invisible north-south border and agreed on the importance of an intelligence-led approach to curbing illegal immigration across the Irish border.
Flanagan said: “In terms of the threat of illegal immigration through the border, the sharing of information is vital, as is the sharing of systems and the use of digital technology.
These are means by which we can ensure that any adverse impact is minimised. The object of our engagement is to maintain the common travel area.”
However, he stressed that upgrading immigration controls between the UK and Ireland would, from Dublin’s perspective, have to be negotiated alongside the country’s EU partners.
“I caution that this will be a decision not just by the UK or Irish governments but ultimately also by the 27 EU states. I have been impressing on my fellow 26 EU foreign ministerial colleagues the importance of maintaining what is now an invisible border.
I have to say there was among them a deep understanding of the consequences for the peace process of the reimposition of a heavily fortified border,” he added.
Brokenshire said that Brexit would neither destabilise the power-sharing institutions set up under the Good Friday agreement nor provide any propaganda boost for hardline dissident republicans opposed to devolution in Belfast.
“Political stability and prosperity in Northern Ireland has been hard fought over many decades, and we will not do anything to undermine it,” he said.
“There is no reason to think that the outcome of the referendum will do anything to undermine the rock-solid commitment of the UK government and the people of Northern Ireland to the settlement set out in the Belfast agreement and its successors.”
James Brokenshire, right, with his Irish counterpart, Charles Flanagan, at talks in Dublin in September.
The Northern Ireland secretary insisted that he did not even want to see customs checks on the border when the UK triggers article 50 and finally leaves the EU.
“The open border for people and businesses has served us well and no one wants to see a return to the borders of the past. It is a high priority for the government that we do not see border controls coming into place.
There is a very strong commitment from the Irish government as well as ourselves to see that that does not happen.”