2017 Press Releases

Op Ed:Brexit and the Common Travel Area

30 Jan 2017
Dr Piaras MacÉinrí Image: John Sheehan

British PM Theresa May’s long-awaited speech made it clear that immigration is central to British concerns.

We cannot forget that, as we leave, the United Kingdom will share a land border with the EU, and maintaining that Common Travel Area with the Republic of Ireland will be an important priority for the UK in the talks ahead.

There has been a Common Travel Area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland for many years. Indeed, it was formed before either of our two countries were members of the European Union. And the family ties and bonds of affection that unite our two countries mean that there will always be a special relationship between us.

So we will work to deliver a practical solution that allows the maintenance of the Common Travel Area with the Republic, while protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom's immigration system.

Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past, so we will make it a priority to deliver a practical solution as soon as we can.

Theresa May, UK Prime Minister 17 January 2017

Whether from fears about excessive numbers, xenophobia, a nostalgia for the past or a concern with sovereignty and the workings of supranational institutions, including the European Court of Justice, Britain has clearly signalled that it wishes to mark a distance from the EU and to resume full control of its own borders and immigration policy.

The Brexit negotiations will inevitably consider the precise manner in which broader current British concerns about immigration are interwoven with the future of the Common Travel Area (CTA), which has been around in one form or another since the 1920s and which has allowed Irish and UK citizens the freedom to move between, live and work in one another’s countries. The outcome is unlikely to affect present-day Irish in the UK, although this may depend in part on whatever concessions other EU countries are willing to make regarding UK residents on their territories. It seems unlikely that either the UK or the EU would wish to punish each other’s citizens. However, future migrants are another matter.

There has always been a hidden price to pay for the benefits conferred by the CTA. Thus, Ireland’s own immigration policy has been implemented in such a manner as to prevent any perceived danger that Ireland might become some kind of ‘back door’ to Britain for immigrants from third countries. Ireland’s policy has followed the UK virtually in lockstep to the extent that one could reasonably have asked whether this country had an independent immigration policy at all. Nonetheless there are some differences – the visa regimes are not identical. Moreover, cooperation within the Schengen Information System (SIS), to which both the UK and Ireland are parties although neither participates fully in Schengen, is already in place to prevent the movement of suspect individuals.

EEC, and later EU, membership could be said to have subsumed most of the privileges of the special status conferred by the earlier CTA arrangements between the UK and Ireland. Over time, customs and immigration restrictions all but disappeared along the land border between the two jurisdictions on this island. When the UK decided not to join Schengen, which allows free travel throughout the rest of the EU as well as Norway and Switzerland, Ireland also stayed out. Again, the reason was the preservation of the maximum freedom of movement and associated measures between the UK and Ireland.

The UK has already indicated that the general principle of free movement with EU member states will be abolished under Brexit. However, Mrs May’s statement includes a commitment to the maintenance of the Common Travel Area. This is welcome. One can only presume that this will mean that the relationship between these two islands will revert to pre-1973 norms. The fact that they have remained in place throughout all the ups and downs of 20th century Anglo-Irish history reflects a pragmatic approach. In the past it suited both parties to keep such arrangements in place. Ireland, an impoverished economy following conservative protectionist policies, could not hope to offer employment to all its people. Britain benefited from a nearby source of cheap labour, English speaking and readily available. No matter how negatively ‘getting the boat to England’ was seen in popular discourse here, it was an option which offered a way out of poverty and lack of opportunity for generation after generation.  

Specifically, Mrs May’s statement says that “.. we will work to deliver a practical solution that allows the maintenance of the Common Travel Area with the Republic, while protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom's immigration system.” While this is reassuring, it should be noted that the maintenance of the CTA is not unconditional. Moreover, the special privileges accorded under the CTA are not guaranteed by treaty and may yet be caught up in wider negotiations. The possibility that Irish people might no longer have a permanently accessible escape route to fall back on in hard times may turn out to be politically a very unpalatable one in this country. At the very least it gives the UK side considerable negotiating leverage.


In the first place, any retention of a ‘soft’ border, while welcome for economic and practical reasons, will inevitably continue to lock Ireland into the UK's immigration regime towards the wider world, except for people from other EU states. This will certainly have implications, in particular, for our treatment of asylum and immigration issues. That would not be a desirable or a negligible outcome. One must also wonder whether, due to our overriding need to retain the privileges offered by the CTA to Irish citizens, we might not be prepared to go even further. One obvious quid pro quo would be to enshrine such freedoms in a new Anglo Irish Treaty, but with the proviso that immigration controls would be operated on a joint basis on the island of Ireland.

Secondly, one wonders how effective control is to be exercised in the case of those EU citizens, not Irish and not British, who wish to exercise their normal EU rights and move to Ireland. What if there is a flow of Lithuanian, Spanish or Romanian migrants across the land border? Or might this lead to the introduction, last used in wartime, of controls between the two islands?

Finally, it remains possible that the question of border controls may be addressed in one fashion or another but that there could still be changes in residence and employment rights. “Family ties and bonds of affection” may not be sufficient to keep the present regime in place. Similar sentiments were once expressed about the British Commonwealth, yet over time their rights were gradually whittled away. For now at least, we must take Mrs May at her word, but vigilance will be required.



Dr Piaras MacÉinrí, Lecturer in Migration Studies Department of Geography, Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century

This Op Ed first appeared in The Irish Times, 28 January 2017

For more on this story contact:

Ruth Mc Donnell, Head of Media and PR, UCC  Mob: 086-0468950

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