The first shot in Britain’s departure from the EU has been fired across Irish bows after its governor in the north of Ireland, James Brokenshire, said Ireland should form part of Britain’s new immigration controls.
According to a report in the Guardian newspaper, Brokenshire said that London and Dublin should combine to strengthen their external borders in order to combat immigration once Britain leaves the European Union.
Brokenshire claimed 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,” he 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 the arrangement that allows for full freedom of movement between people from Ireland and Britain on both islands. The proposed new immigration controls were portrayed as a means of avoiding a return of the border controls and patrols which have always been a source of conflict in the north of Ireland.
However, there were suspicions that the British government was seeking to present the new ‘soft border’ arrangements as a fait accompli in order to bypass negotiations with the European Union. One indication of this was Brokenshire’s failure to mention how the new controls would handle EU citizens, who will retain the right to live and work freely throughout the 26 Counties following Brexit, but who are set to face stronger immigration controls when travelling to Britain.
Speculation over Brexit’s impact has brought unease to border areas. Last weekend, Sinn Fein organised protests with mock border posts to highlight the potential disruption caused by checkpoints in Six locations: at Killeen, on the border between Armagh and Louth (pictured); in Tyrone at the Lifford Bridge on the Donegal border and at the Moybridge crossing into Monaghan; between Belcoo and Blacklion on the Fermanagh-Leitrim border; Aghalane Bridge between Fermanagh and Cavan; and Bridgend between Donegal and Derry.
Sinn Fein MEP Matt Carthy said the British proposal showed that the London government is already “in the driving seat” regarding the impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland.
“This is entirely unacceptable and we need to see the Irish government take up their responsibilities to the Irish people, north and south, and to stop being led by the nose by the Tory Brexiteers, who clearly do not have Ireland’s interests at heart,” he said.
But Tanaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said said there was “not anything surprising” in Mr Brokenshire’s views, while the 26 County foreign minister, Charles Flanagan, welcomed the British commitment to an “invisible” border and backed an “intelligence-led” approach. He 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.”
Dublin’s Minister for Finance Michael Noonan said neither government wanted a hard border, adding: “If you do not have a border, going from Newry going across, dividing Sligo and Donegal from the northern counties, the next step is to have your controls at the ports. So that would mean Rosslare, and Larne, and the airports, but that wouldn’t be much more than the normal checks we have at airports already, where you show your passport.”
Unionists are also understood to support moves to control immigration without checkpoints along the border, despite the implicit recognition of the territorial integrity of the island of Ireland.
Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes has further suggested that the Six Counties should be given “associate membership” of the EU after Brexit, which could ensure that its funding contributions are continued. Such an arrangement could allow the North to trade on full terms into the EU, and not be subject to tariffs.
Scottish Nationalist Party leader Nicola Sturgeon has now also suggested a deal to allowed Scotland to remain part of the EU single market, even if the rest of Britain leaves. She said that the reassurances offered to Dublin, and the ongoing promise of no hard border in Ireland, has created opportunities for Scotland, without giving details.
But she also said she will be tabling draft legislation for a second referendum on independence, and said there is “every chance” of a new referendum before March 2019, “if it proves to be the only and best way to protect Scottish interests”.