The UK Home Office has not sought any advice from experts on the potential impact of Brexit on the Irish border or Irish citizens living in Britain or Northern Ireland.
The Home Office, whose responsibilities include immigration and security, has also not spoken to any experts about how the UK’s departure from the European Union might affect immigration controls at the Irish border.
The Home Office’s admission – made in response to a Freedom of Information request lodged by the Ferret – has been described as “shocking” by experts on both sides of the Irish border.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood accused the British Government of “leaving us behind” and called on the Irish government to “stand up” for the interests of northern nationalists.
The Irish border is one of the three main issues to be discussed during the on-going Brexit talks. Both the British and Irish governments have insisted that the Common Travel Area that has existed since the 1920s will remain in place after Brexit and that disruption to Irish citizens will be minimal.
This British Government just doesn’t care about the effect of Brexit on the North Colum Eastwood, SDLP leader
But concerns have been raised that the Brexit could throw up unexpected problems around the border and the status of Irish citizens in Britain, particularly if the UK adopts a different immigration policy to the rest of the European Union. More than 380,000 Irish-born people live in Britain.
Fears have also been growing among Irish passport holders living in Northern Ireland, who will remain EU citizens after Brexit. Earlier this month, the UK government refused a visa application from the husband of a county Derry woman who refused to describe herself as British.
The UK Home Office has not consulted any experts about whether Brexit could affect the status of those people born and resident in Northern Ireland who choose the right under the Good Friday Agreement to only hold an Irish passport.
The department has also not spoken to any outside sources about the potential impact of Brexit on immigration controls and smuggling at the Irish border, the FOI response revealed.
“They think they have all the expertise in house. It’s quite shocking,” said Katy Hayward, senior lecturer in social conflict at Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, at Queen’s University, Belfast.
“Given that we don’t have devolution in Northern Ireland and the problems we have here, you would have thought it would be all the more reason to draw on expertise, particularly in relation to citizenship, to smuggling. These are key issues.”
They think they have all the expertise in house. It’s quite shocking Katy Hayward, Queen’s University, Belfast
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said this shows that “this British Government just doesn’t care about the effect of Brexit on the North”.
“Brexit is the biggest constitutional and economic challenge to face this island since partition. Despite their claims that Northern Ireland is a priority, it’s clear from the absolute vacuum of preparatory work undertaken by the Home Office that this British Government just doesn’t care about the effect of Brexit on the North,” said Eastwood.
Northern Ireland, and the UK’s other devolved governments including Scotland, are represented on the Joint Ministerial Committee for European negotiations. But the JMC has not met since February.
Eastwood said the Home Office revelations demonstrated “the critical need for an Executive to make the case for our unique circumstances as part of the negotiations. And it further emphasises the need for the Irish Government to stand up for our interests when the British Government has clearly left us behind.”
The Home Office told the Irish Times that it believes that Irish citizens are “not foreign” under UK law as the Ireland Act 1949 is still in force. The Act states that “the Republic of Ireland is not a foreign country for the purposes of any law in force in any part of the United Kingdom”.
But Bernard Ryan, professor of migration law at the University of Leicester, said that the 1949 Act was “completely out of time” and that UK immigration law would require updating.
“The Ireland Act was written to bring Ireland into line with Commonwealth countries. But since then the status of Commonwealth countries has completely changed. There is no distinction between ‘aliens’ and ‘Commonwealth’ citizens anymore, just between British and non-British citizens.”
On the Irish border, the UK government’s Brexit White Paper commits to making the border “as seamless and as frictionless as possible”. Brexit Secretary David Davis has repeatedly mentioned trusted trader schemes, automatic number plate recognition and pre-tagged containers as possible solutions to the Irish border problem.
But earlier this month, Irish minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney said that such technical solutions were “not going to work” and that free movement of goods, people and services across the border was essential to peace and stability.
The UK government was criticised for commissioning a study into the role EU nationals play in the UK economy this week. The report is not due to be published until September 2018 – just six months before Britain is due to leave.
The Irish government has succeeded in putting the border issue on the EU agenda but needs to plan for post-Brexit possibilities, says Ben Tonra, professor of European Foreign, Security and Defence Policy at UCD.
“There has been a lack of thinking on our side, too. We have said, ‘no hard border, no hard border, no hard border.’ But there are lots of borders that will need to be someplace; border for goods, for people, for standards.”
The introduction of customs checks after Brexit could re-open the debate about Ireland joining the passport-free Schengen zone, says Tonra.
“We have excluded ourselves – and been excluded from Schengen – in order to protect the Common Travel Area. If the Common Travel Area is going to be so attenuated that it doesn’t really work anymore and the British government is demanding checks at the Irish border, then it might be time to do a proper cost-benefit analysis of the costs of the Common Travel Area versus the benefits of Schengen.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Irish citizens residing in the UK will not need to apply for settled status to protect their entitlements and we will continue to uphold the rights of people of Northern Ireland to be able to identify as British or Irish, or both, and to hold citizenship accordingly.
“The Prime Minister has been clear about this Government’s intention to maintain the Common Travel Area and to protect the rights of British and Irish citizens in each others’ countries reflecting the long-standing social and economic ties between our two countries.”