The Government needs to rethink plans for a US-style visa waiver document for journeys across the border into Northern Ireland, ministers have been told.
here are fears it could hit tourism hard, with visitors to the Republic unaware that they would be required to produce authorisation at what is often regarded as an invisible border by visitors.
MPs on Tuesday voted 298 to 216, majority 82, to reject a Lords amendment to the Nationalities and Borders Bill that sought to ditch the requirement for foreigners to need an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) pass when making a local journey to Northern Ireland from the Republic.
It means EU citizens who are not Irish will have to apply online for pre-travel clearance to cross the border.
It will also apply to citizens of the European Economic Area countries – Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland – resident in the Republic.
The move is part of efforts to overhaul immigration laws in the post-Brexit era.
The Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) described it as “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”.
Alliance MP Stephen Farry predicted the move would damage tourism.
He told MPs: “We can foresee a situation where tourists are not aware of the requirements, or where tour operators have to go through bureaucracy in order to ensure that their passengers on bus tours, for example, are fully compliant with this new law.
“That may well put some people out of the market or persuade them not offer that type of service. That would be a huge loss to our tourism sector, which is a key aspect of the Northern Ireland economy.”
He told the House of Commons last night that there was “great concern has been expressed by all parties” in Dublin “about the impact the Bill will have on what are often daily movements on the island of Ireland by non-Irish nationals”.
He said: “I believe that the system of electronic travel authorisations is essentially unworkable in the context of the island of Ireland.”
The North Down MP added: “The Government may say that this is a simple process and there is no intention of introducing routine border checks; I recognise that they have been clear about that. None the less, it will be a new bureaucratic process.
“People may either forget to apply for their ETAs or forget to renew them, and some may even be placed in a degree of legal jeopardy. Someone who is in Northern Ireland without an ETA and has to interact with the UK state, perhaps for healthcare reasons or in the event of a traffic accident, will potentially be in a position of some uncertainty, and there may well be repercussions from that.
“There are three instances in which this could become a problem. There are tens of thousands of movements each day on the island of Ireland involving Northern Ireland citizens – for the purposes of work or education, for example, and because people living in one part of the island may have business in the other jurisdiction.
“People who do not intend to do any business in Northern Ireland often have to travel through it to get from A to B. The quickest route from Dublin to Donegal is through Northern Ireland on the A5, and even someone making a very localised journey from Clones or Cavan town, for example, will cross the border four times in the course of that short journey. This could become fairly absurd.”
Mr Farry asked Home Office minister Tom Pursglove if he would “accept that this is very damaging for the tourism trade on the island of Ireland, which is very much an integrated market, with people often landing in Dublin and then wishing to travel into Northern Ireland, and will prove to be a major obstacle in the way of those natural journeys?”
Mr Pursglove offered him a meeting to discuss the issue.
The Conservative chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Simon Hoare, spoke in favour of the Lords amendment which would remove the need for the ETA.
Mr Hoare said: “There is an anxiety from Tourism Ireland and Tourism NI that this is going to be an inhibitor for people wishing to visit the island of Ireland.
“They don’t say I am coming to the north or I am coming to the south, they say I am going to Ireland. They don’t see the boundary as we know it and see it.”
He had earlier said: “We have seen no evidence to show that there is a systemic abuse of the common travel area where people come from the south, through to the north and then over to GB. No evidence at all.
“What I would suggest to the Government is they go away and have another think about this.
“It seems to be sensible that for those who have the right of residence established in the Republic of Ireland, they would be exempt from having an ETA.”
Mr Pursglove said he “would like to take the opportunity to reassure colleagues again that there will be no controls on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland”.
“However, this amendment could result in an unacceptable gap in UK border security that would allow persons of interest or risk who would be otherwise refused an electronic travel authorisation to enter the UK legally, undermining the very purpose of the ETA scheme, which is to prevent the travel of those who pose a threat to the UK,” he said.
“It is important that, as now, all individuals—except British and Irish citizens—arriving in the UK, including those crossing the land border into Northern Ireland, continue to enter in line with the UK’s immigration framework to protect both the UK immigration system and the common travel area from abuse.
“This is a well-established principle of the operation of the common travel area and applies when travelling in all directions. The UK is entitled to introduce and change its own requirements in the interest of securing the UK border, and we will continue to liaise with the Irish authorities on matters of border security in relation to the common travel area. We therefore cannot support this amendment.”
The bill will return for further considering in the House of Lords at a later date.