Skip to main content

Northern Ireland: Electronic Border

Volume 696: debated on Wednesday 21 November 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What discussions have taken place with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of the Republic of Ireland on the impact of the electronic border on the British Isles common travel area.

My Lords, we continue to work closely with both the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of the Republic of Ireland on operational policy and legislative issues, including the implementation of the e-borders programme, which is a key part of the Government’s plans for securing our borders.

Lord Trimble: My Lords, I wonder if the Irish Government have pointed out in their discussions with Her Majesty’s Government that British citizens make up the largest group of foreign nationals in the Irish Republic and that they, together with the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Irish passport holders domiciled in Great Britain, have been accustomed to travelling back and forth between the two states without any formalities ever since the creation of a separatist Irish state. With the e-borders, there will of course be considerable inconvenience to them. Would it not be much better to take the existing informal common travel area and put it on a formal basis analogous to the Schengen agreement that applies elsewhere in Europe? This would solve the problems that arise in practice and relieve the difficulties experienced by the Home Office, which seems to be intellectually challenged by the idea of a land frontier.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, as was said before, there is a lot of dialogue between ourselves, the Border and Immigration Agency, the UK police, the Garda National Immigration Bureau and the Northern Ireland Executive on these various issues. We carry out a lot of joint operations, and we all believe that the way we are moving forward with two chunks of work—one relates to the Police and Justice Act 2006 and the other to e-borders—are good ways of covering the problems. We know both anecdotally and from taking samples that there are people who either come through the Republic of Ireland, move into Northern Ireland and then come across to the United Kingdom or vice versa. The sample evidence we have suggests that it is a considerable problem, and this way forward will resolve those issues.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the same quality of protection against external terrorism will be afforded to citizens of the United Kingdom residing in Northern Ireland as to our fellow citizens who reside in the mainland?

My Lords, I return to basic Northern Ireland politics after a very statesmanlike Question from my noble friend Lord Trimble. Do Her Majesty’s Government really understand Ireland and Northern Ireland? I think not. They are expelling the people of Northern Ireland—I am one of them; I live there—geographically from the United Kingdom. They are putting an electronic boundary around England, Scotland and Wales, excluding Northern Ireland and packaging it in with the Republic of Ireland. Do Her Majesty’s Government really think that that will help political friendship and political progress between these islands given their delicate state? I would love to answer the question. I hope the Minister’s answer is the same as mine.

My Lords, I do not agree. The Government do understand Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and the status of the people there. There is no doubt whatever that, in the interests of the Republic of Ireland, the people in Northern Ireland and the people of the United Kingdom in general, it makes sense to move down this route. On the e-borders area, for example, we have carried out a trial run called Project Semaphore, and in that very small pilot project 1,300 arrests were made for crimes including murder, rape, assault and so on. On a counterterrorist basis, it is better for the safety of all our people. I cannot accept what has just been said about our lack of understanding. There is absolutely no intention, no desire and no wish; it would be contrary to everything we believe in.

My Lords, will the Minister reply specifically to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble? Would it not be more optimal to maintain the common travel area rather than hive off Great Britain from our neighbours in both Northern Ireland and the Republic? This is a complex issue. Given the mix of population between the islands, it is absurd to go down the route that the Government appear to be going down.

My Lords, we are maintaining the common travel area, which is recognised by the EU. We are applying a sensible way forward to identify the loophole that existed of people moving in through the Republic of Ireland, into Northern Ireland and then travelling across to the United Kingdom. We know, as I said, from anecdotal and sample evidence that that is a considerable number of people. Similarly, the Crown dependency routes are being maintained. So the common travel area is staying as it is.

My Lords, do the Government not recognise the enormous symbolism of what they are doing with the map? What will be the security losses of including the province of Northern Ireland with the rest of the United Kingdom instead of leaving it out?

My Lords, there has been mention already of the common land border in Ireland. Those of us who have patrolled and walked along it know how permeable it is. That is part of the issue in terms of the ability of people arriving in the Republic of Ireland to get into Northern Ireland. Nothing that is being done makes any declaration about the status of Northern Ireland. It is for the safety of all the people of these islands that we are doing these things. There is a great deal of discussion going on. I think it is a sensible way forward.

My Lords, does the Minister not realise that, when he spoke a moment ago of travelling from Northern Ireland to the United Kingdom, he demonstrated clearly his lack of understanding of the basic concept?

My Lords, it was a slip. I certainly understand it. As I said, I have served in Northern Ireland. It was rather like the slip that people make when they forget that the United Kingdom is in Europe. It is a slip that is made sometimes.

My Lords, will the Minister let me have details of how the projected security measures across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic will be similar to or different from the projected border controls within and without the European Community?