24 October 2007

No Selfish Strategic Interest

Back in 1990, Peter Brooke, the Northern Ireland Secretary of the day, famously remarked that that Britain had no selfish strategic interest in Northern Ireland, and that it would accept the unification of Ireland if the people wanted it. It was a historic moment, as a representative of the government of the United Kingdom was declaring that part of the UK could leave the Union if its people so wished. A few years later, in December 1993, John Major put this sentiment rather more formally, as part of the Downing Street Declaration.

I couldn't help but think of this today, when reading that as of 2009, the common travel area between Ireland and Britain is - in effect - to be abolished. Apparently the British have decided to develop an electronic border control in order to track the movement of suspected terrorists and criminals, as well as illegal immigrants, and this will mean that everyone arriving in Britain by sea or air will be required to produce their passport on arrival; the Irish government are planning to introduce a similar system.

Leaving aside the question of whether this will achieve what it's supposedly intended to achieve, to the average traveller this won't make an ounce of difference: Irish people usually have to produce their passports when leaving British airports, and regularly have to produce them on arrival at British ports, while everyone has to at least gesture with their passport on arriving at Irish ports of airports. The common travel area has been compromised for some time.

But here's where it gets interesting: there still won't be any border controls between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, which hasn't been since 1922. Unless you fly, I suppose. The thinking, apparently, is that this would be impossible to police.

Maybe so, and it would surely undermine much of the work done through the Peace Process. But if, as seems to be the plan, all sea and air passengers within the common travel area will be required to be in possession of a valid passport, what this will mean is that those Ulstermen who see themselves as British will need to carry a passport to visit Britain, but will be allowed to move freely among their fellow Irishmen. This was the case for a few years after the Second World War too, but back then the British were very keen to claim Northern Ireland as part of the UK. Things are different now.

Interesting times, and that's not even getting into the question of whether Ireland might now consider joining the Schengen Agreement...

No comments: