Keith Dunne poses some questions here – Should Ireland sacrifice the Common Travel Area for membership of Schengen? And at the same time should the Irish government push for special status for Northern Ireland so the island can continue to enjoy freedom of movement?
Over the last few weeks I kept expecting Leo Varadkar, the Irish Prime Minister, to start singing Wolf Tone songs, so strong has the rhetoric on Irish borders and a united Ireland been. As well as the statement by government ministers on moving the Irish/UK border to the Irish sea, we have also had a report citing a “pathway” to a united Ireland.
This rhetoric has been received well by Irish republicans who seem to think their dream of the four green fields of Ireland being united is only a matter of time – but the truth is it is not.
The coverage got a predictable reaction from Northern Irish unionists who dismiss on principle the idea of moving the border to the Irish sea or the setting up of a forum to work towards creating a united Ireland. Why would they be in favour of this? It would be like asking UKIP to be on a committee that’s looking at ways to keep the UK in the single market.
DUP member Nigel Dodds said “It’s simply taking things backwards at a time when common sense cooperation between our two countries and between the Republic and Northern Ireland is what’s needed”. It’s not often I agree with the DUP but in this case they have a point.
A sharper tone from Ireland
Because all this talk in the Irish media of “a nation once again” is indeed rhetoric. The UK is leaving the E.U. and there isn’t enough support in Northern Ireland for a united Ireland and may never be.
There has definitely been a change in tone from the Irish government since Leo Varadkar took over as Prime Minister and Simon Coveney became foreign minister in April. While their predecessors spoke against a return to the “borders of the past”, they both seemed to accept that there would be some changes but were more diplomatic and nuanced in their language.
This has now changed and instead of talk of working together to solve these problems, we are getting diplomacy by megaphone with the Irish government seeming to sink it’s heels in and refusing to engage in any dialogue on the issue.
And what has caused this sudden change in tone and the unmentionable being mentioned again?
Brexit of course and the perceived challenges that it causes for Ireland.
The UK is Ireland’s biggest single trade partner (although trade to the rest of the EU is higher) and we are the only country to share a land border with the UK (although technically the French UK border is located in France). As a result of this, Ireland has lobbied the EU to place the Irish question at the top of the list of negotiations regarding Brexit. These issues come down to two points of interest, the Common Travel Area (CTA) that exists between Ireland the UK and the crown dependencies and the equal treatment and rights of each others citizens in our respective countries. This basically allows Irish people living in the UK to have the same rights as British people and visa versa.
This arrangement came about in 1949 under the Ireland Act which was in response to Ireland declaring itself a republic and leaving the Commonwealth. This act gives Irish people higher rights than those of other EU nationals, including the right to vote. This is something I have never favoured or been comfortable with. I think it is blatantly unfair for Irish people to be given these rights and others not. And while after Brexit the UK can in theory do as it pleases in relation to emigration law, I believe it would be wrong for UK citizens be given more rights in Ireland than fellow E.U. citizens.
Reports earlier on in the Brexit negotiations said that Poland was opposed to this, pointing out its discriminatory nature but in reality there isn’t much Poland or the EU can do about it. Member states are allowed to offer citizenship or rights to third party countries as it wishes as we see in cases such as Romania and Moldova.
Common travel versus Schengen
The other issue is the CTA and it is with this that we get into the thorny issue of borders. The so called Common Travel Area is basically an agreement that kept the status quo after Irish independence, allowing for the freedom of travel for Irish and British citizens between Ireland and the UK. There was never any real formal agreement or rules. It was more or less a gentleman’s agreement among the two countries.
It is the agreement that has meant the land border between Ireland and UK is open and frictionless. However it is also the reason Ireland has not joined Schengen.
The UK opted out of Schengen and as a result of fear of having to put up immigration controls along the land border Ireland, opted out as well.
Until recently this may not have been such a big deal. The main entry points to continental Europe for Irish and British people are airports and in most cases all we had to do was show our passport for a second before being waved through. But all that has changed in the last few months. New rules have meant tougher entry and exit checks in to the Schengen Area with reports of queues up to four hours long, people missing flights and general misery. It was reported by some UK tabloids that British holiday makers were being singled out – this of course is not true, but the UK is the largest source of holiday makers that are outside the Schengen Area. If the UK was a member like the other 26 countries (including non EU members) then there would be no queues.
While the case for the UK joining Schengen may be a mute point, I believe we in Ireland really need to look seriously at this idea again. Leo Varadkar, speaking at Queens University Belfast on the 4th August said “being European is an essential part of the modern Irish identity” and some opinion polls show support for EU membership as high as 88% here. However, by not joining Schengen, Irish people are missing out on one of the greatest achievements of the European Project. It is easily conceivable that in a few years time we will be the only EU state not in the free travel area.
The consequences of this could be massive. As well as the inconvenience to travellers, we lose out on tourism from non EU states, and it makes us less attractive to investors.
Yes, joining the Schengen Zone would mean leaving the Common Travel Area, but wouldn’t joining a free travel zone with 26 countries be better than being a member of one with just one other country and the Chanel Islands.
Most Irish air travel is now to and from the Schengen countries and we do implement immigration checks on people arriving from Britain.
The issue of Northern Ireland does indeed pose a problem but a solution can be found. If Northern Ireland is granted some kind of special arrangement within the European Economic Area, then I see no reason why the Island can’t join together. And if that is not possible, then yes, we may need to introduce border checks. We had border checks before, right up to the 1990s and reintroducing them would not be as hard as people make out.
Yes, such a move will not be popular with some, but if Ireland’s future is with the European Union then we need to move forward and not be shackled by the past.