Seanín Graham Northern Correspondent
A British government minister has accepted that “further dialogue” is required with the Irish government over a controversial US-style visa waiver for non-Irish EU citizens crossing the Border as part of proposed changes to immigration laws.
During a debate in the House of Lords on Monday prior to a vote, the planned pre-travel clearance checks for those entering Northern Ireland were branded “unworkable”, with members urging the UK Lords Minister, Susan Williams (Baroness Williams of Trafford) to “make concessions”.
Responding to criticism about lack of communication with the Irish Government and tourist chiefs, she said: “We do accept the need for further dialogue with interlocuters including the Irish government, Tourism Ireland and Tourism Northern Ireland. I totally accept that point.”
Last Tuesday, Westminster MPs voted to reinstate the proposal for an electronic waiver following an amendment by the House of Lords to exempt Northern Ireland from the new legislation. The day after the Commons challenge, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said as far as he was concerned, it had not been finalised. He described the decision as “regrettable”.
Coming under the British government’s Nationalities and Borders Bill, the proposal will require EU citizens who are not Irish will to apply online for pre-travel clearance -known as Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) – before entering the UK, including when crossing the Border into the North.
Addressing the Lords on Monday after submitting an amendment, Paul Murphy (Baron Murphy of Torfaen) said he was “hopeful the Minister would have spoken to her colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office and would have made some concessions on this”. “But the dead hand of the Home Office is there again,” he added.
The former Northern Ireland Secretary of State said he was “troubled” by the introduction of an ETA, at a cost of €14, saying it would severely impact on tourism, cross-border health services and the “spirit of the Good Friday Agreement” .
“Is it really worth jeopardising our (British/Irish) relationship which is bad enough as it is over the last number of years by this petty and silly proposal by the government…I hope the government will change its mind but I’m not hopeful.”
The planned change to the law will also apply to citizens of the European Economic Area (EEA) living in the State, which includes people from Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland.
Non-British or non-Irish citizens from other countries, outside the EU/EEA, which previously did not require a visa to enter the UK, will now need an ETA.
Former SDLP leader Margaret Richie also expressed her opposition, saying the ETA scheme was “unworkable”.
“It is unenforceable and would violate the very premise of reconciliation in terms of the Good Friday Agreement,” she told the Lords.
She asked the UK minister to “consider the geography” of Border towns and villages, saying: “I believe the Home Office hasn’t fully considered that.” “There’s one village that straddles both Donegal and Fermanagh, that is the small village of Pettigo where that Border goes straight down the middle.
“Within one minute you could be in the Republic of Ireland and the next minute, you could be in Northern Ireland.” She queried what discussions had taken with the Irish Government as well tourism organisations.
The human rights NGO, the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), has also condemned the move, which it said was “unworkable and risks a hard border for many non-British and non-Irish citizens in Border communities who have been able to freely cross the Border to date”.
Baroness Williams — who described herself as “an Irish woman with a father from Northern Ireland” — indicated however that the ETA plan was likely to be passed. “Once the EU’s come into force next year, Ireland will stand out as one of the few countries in Europe without an ETA style pass,” she said.
Referring to tourism, she said that “once granted, an ETA will be valid for multiple trips to the UK”, and that the cost is “likely to be small and unlikely to be a deterrent for visitors”.
“Moreover, many of the UK’s international partners have taken a similar approach to border security…It is a very familiar concept for travellers,” she added.