By Martina Devlin (for the Irish Independent)
Just when you thought the Brexit commotion had taken a back seat to war in Ukraine and spiralling cost-of-living concerns, a Westminster vote limiting free movement for people on the island of Ireland inserts a new plot twist.
The British parliament has agreed that only Irish and British passport holders can move backwards and forwards over the Border without checks, while everyone else must apply for a visa waiver in advance – even for local journeys. The Irish Government is free to do nothing, of course, but it does mean change on the northern side of the Border.
Ireland’s sizeable population of EU citizens will lose unrestricted movement, no matter how long they have lived here.
Particularly affected will be people living in the borderlands who regularly criss-cross that invisible line to work, shop, socialise or attend sporting events – now required to apply for pre-travel clearance unless they are Irish or British citizens.
Also impacted will be tourists in the Republic who might fancy a spur-of-the-moment trip to the Titanic Centre or Giant’s Causeway – or vice versa for holidaymakers based in Belfast and other parts of the North. Spontaneity is out.
With multiple crossing points, these new arrangements can’t be policed effectively, even if the political will exists to do so – but certainly the main Belfast-Dublin corridor can be targeted.
This new requirement for an ETA, or electronic travel authorisation, represents an ongoing attempt to bolt abrasions on to Ireland’s prized frictionless Border.
In short, things have gone all Brexity again, as though the world doesn’t have enough to contend with.
It is further proof of how insignificant Irish interests are, north or south, in the Westminster bubble. Because if non-Irish or non-British passport holders are to be checked crossing the Border, then it stands to reason that everyone must face some kind of inspection.
This is another layer of bureaucracy for hauliers with deliveries to make on both sides of the island and therefore acts as a barrier to trade. And will fees be attached to that ETA?
The DUP’s eight MPs, from Jeffrey Donaldson to Sammy Wilson, unanimously voted down a House of Lords amendment to exempt Northern Ireland from the legislation – presumably imagining they were linking themselves ever closer to Britain. Some folk never learn.
As for parties in the Dáil, even those with few policies in common have united to resist Ireland being defined by its Border. Foreign Minister Simon Coveney was uncharacteristically blunt about Britain’s tone-deaf resistance to compromise: “Our concern on this has been communicated clearly but has been ignored.”
He said the “regrettable” decision was contrary to free movement for everyone on the island, supported for many years by both governments.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said: “Are we really suggesting that Polish people who live and work in Lifford now need papers to travel to Strabane, or from Emyvale to Aughnacloy?
“It will be devastating for the tourism sector, particularly for counties like Donegal and along the Border region. This could cost tens of thousands of jobs in a sector barely getting back on its feet after Covid-19.”
Michael McGrath, substituting for the Taoiseach at Leaders’ Questions, told the Dáil that distinguishing between EU citizens from other member states and Irish citizens was neither “practical or fair”. Dublin protests and London shrugs. Buck up, chaps, the ETA is a simple, online form fairly easily renewed once applied for.
Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis (my government intends to break the law “in a specific and limited way”) said: “There will be no controls on the Border. UK and Irish citizens will continue to be able to travel freely.
“This new ETA requirement is about protecting the Common Travel Area from abuse.” So, controls will happen but not at the Border. Except how could they be imposed without checks? Isn’t that a hard border?
And so the case for unity continues to grow. Here’s yet another specimen of why a system of two jurisdictions on one small island is illogical, counterproductive and hostile to overall best interests. It is indefensible that Tory politicians, aided and abetted by a tiny knot of DUP apostles, should assume the right to alter how people in Ireland move legally around the island.
Others in Britain are claiming their national security will be jeopardised if controls aren’t imposed.
Which tells us all we need to know. This is really about east-west curbs rather than north-south, which are essentially unworkable.
The legislation’s impact will be to tighten the sea border rather than the porous land border.
Britain sees the Common Travel Areas as open to “abuse”, to quote Mr Lewis. Potentially unwanted, for example, are our welcome Ukrainian guests – currently no barriers exist to stop them crossing the Border and relocating from Northern Ireland to Britain.
That’s where the new law going through Westminster has a role to play, as part of an overhaul of Britain’s immigration laws which include provisions on asylum seekers.
First and last, the Nationality and Borders Bill is designed to protect Britain. It either won’t be policed or will have a half-hearted application on the island of Ireland, but good luck trying to enter England, Scotland or Wales without that visa waiver or a British or Irish passport.
Meanwhile, tourism and hospitality will be adversely impacted on both sides of the Border, but perhaps especially in Northern Ireland because international tourists often enter the region via the Republic.
If holidaymakers need to apply for an American-style visa waiver in advance, or if they experience processing delays, they may well decide to stay on one side of the Border.
If only someone had explained that downside to the DUP contingent voting in Westminster. Oh wait, it makes no difference in a world where ideology trumps all.
But those lawmakers are on course to discover another law – that of unintended consequences, because the logic for unity gathers pace.