A new border zone is being set up by the British government in which military and customs officials would have additional powers to stop, search and interrogate members of the public within a mile-wide strip across Ireland.
The powers are contained in a new “Counter-Terrorism and Border Security” Bill which is currently passing through the Westminster parliament in London.
If the bill becomes law, any member of the public could be detained and searched to establish if they are entering or leaving British jurisdiction, and their purpose in doing so, regardless of citizenship.
The new proposals have already passed committee stage at Westminster and the law could be in place by Christmas, well before Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union.
Under the proposed legislation an “examining officer” may question a person to determine if they are engaged in “hostile activity”, defined to include anything which could be contrary to Britain’s “economic well-being”.
The new powers will also be applied at Newry train station, where passengers may be searched after they have crossed the border, as well as in some built-up areas of Strabane and Derry.
The new legislation is to facilitate the new police-like Border Force, which will be deployed by early 2019. The existing PSNI relies on anti-terrorist legislation to stop members of the public.
Separately, the bill also appears set to introduce a blanket ban on images of IRA and loyalist paramilitary merchandise.
Human rights groups have raised concerns about the bill becoming law. Director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, Brian Gormally said: “Will we see a kind of militarised zone along the border, where roving patrols can stop and question any person, resident or traveller, without any kind of justification?
“We hope not, but in this piece of legislation such a scenario is expressly provided for.”
Paul O’Connor from the Pat Finucane Centre said the proposed new powers could lead to confrontation.
“The proposal that the PSNI or UK border patrols would be randomly roaming the border stopping individuals without due cause is a recipe for disaster and confrontation and would likely lead to mass civil disobedience,” he said.
SDLP Brexit Spokesperson Claire Hanna said that proposals would be “grotesque assault on border life” and the Good Friday Agreement.
“It is an affront to the peace Agreement that Theresa May would allow any hardening of the border, let alone providing for ‘stop and search’ zones,” she said.
“As the months go by and the Government becomes increasingly closer to crashing out of the European Union, people here are again those most likely to be the casualties of their incompetence.”
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill accused the British government of duplicity and ‘clearly preparing for a hard border in Ireland’.
“The use of stop and search powers is already a cause of massive concern in nationalist areas and if powers as wide-ranging as these were introduced, it would be disastrous,” she said.
“It runs counter to human rights provisions. It runs counter to the Good Friday Agreement and the principles of the European Common Travel Area. I will be taking this up directly with both governments because it is clear that, through this legislation, London is preparing for the imposition of a hard border in Ireland.
“That is in direct contravention to the assurances they gave to the European Union last December. It is sheer duplicity and the Irish Government and the EU 27 cannot allow them to renege on those guarantees.
“We warned at the time that British government promises could not be trusted and legally-binding guarantees were required. Clearly that is the case given their duplicity in this issue.
“The Brexit negotiations are reaching a crucial stage and Dublin and Brussels must ensure that there will be no hardening of the border in Ireland.”