There won’t be any physical structure or any police presence on the border itself, but any attempt by unauthorised persons to enter the UK will be a criminal offence. That is the whole point of the legislation: to use the penal system to deter asylum-seekers hoping to get into the country. A robust amendment exempting Northern Ireland was passed in the Lords but rejected in the Commons, with all DUP members voting in support of the government.
The practical problems that will result are immediately apparent, or at least immediately apparent to everyone except Brandon Lewis. He has airily dismissed all expressions of concern with reassurances about the absence of any hard border on the island of Ireland. But an invisible border is a border nonetheless. It won’t apply to UK or Irish nationals, who will still retain the freedom of movement allowed under the Common Travel Act. Instead, it will apply to all other nationalities. In Ireland, that amounts to a considerable number of people: the Irish government estimates there are approximately 645,000 non-nationals living in the state, equivalent to 13% of the population. The tide of Ukrainian refugees now entering the country will swell those numbers considerably. None of these people will be prohibited from crossing the border, but in order to do so they will have to first apply online for a visa waiver, or an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA), which is described as being like the ESTA scheme used for entry to the United States. An Egyptian doctor at Altnagelvin will need an ETA to travel to work if he or she lives across the border in Donegal. The same requirement will apply to Dutch or Lithuanian residents of Dundalk if they wish to go shopping in Newry. The completion of the ETA form may not be onerous, but it is a reminder that the person lacks citizenship in the UK. And even a small barrier may be enough to deter tourists. After the bill comes law a coach can only take visitors from Dublin up to the north if all those on board are in possession of an ETA. This is seriously bad news for tourism north and south, and will mean the end of marketing the island of Ireland as a single destination.
All of these are collateral damage in the creation of a measure really designed to punish refugees. How will it work? Immigration officials will be present at ports and airports, but also on buses and trains. I think of an incident from my own experience. I was on the Enterprise train when officials walked down the train and took two men off for questioning. Both had dark skin. It’s hard to imagine that this scene won’t be repeated many times over when officials come looking for those who, at first sight, appear to be neither British nor Irish. It is why human rights organisations have named it the Anti-Refugee Bill.
Its introduction has created a new crisis in British / Irish relations. A grim-faced Simon Coveney stood beside Brandon Lewis at a press conference on 23 March, and using his most polite diplomatic language said that he held out hope that Irish concerns might still be heeded, adding; “I think it is important to say that this is not legislation that is finalised yet”. That is the case, as further discussions have to take place with the Lords, but the substantive issues have been settled, and to Brandon Lewis’s satisfaction. From here on in the Irish government is likely to face what Irish historian Ronan Fanning described as “the perpetual problem of commanding British attention”.
The Irish border is set for a re-appearance thanks to the Nationality and Borders Bill now making its way through the parliamentary process.