Geoff Hill

Back door to Britain

The real problem with the Irish border is that it is being abused

I was working in Johannesburg when I first got wind of the fact that Ireland has become an illegal back door to the UK. If you’re from a country such as South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Fiji or Guyana, you need, not just a passport, but a prearranged visa, obtained from the local embassy for a fee, before you can even board a plane to Britain. It takes time, your details are checked, and you need to show a reason why you’ll go home at the end of your stay.

In the 1980s most African nationals could come to Britain visa-free. But worries about terrorism and crimes committed once in the UK meant that, one by one, African countries had to join the visa scheme. In 2009, South Africa joined too — not just because of anxiety about security but because the UK reckoned that the South African passport system was open to abuse. There were concerns nationals of other countries would apply for a South African passport so they could come to the UK.

So the visa scheme would seem to solve these problems and tighten security — except that Ireland asks for nothing of the sort. South Africans, for example, can fly into Shannon airport with just a passport and ‘supporting documents such as a hotel reservation’. Then it’s a simple matter of driving or bussing to Belfast before a ferry to the mainland. Those who’ve done it boast about this in Joburg.

Even after (and if) Britain leaves the EU, if limits are imposed on European travellers they will still be able to enter the country through Ireland. Backstop? I’d call it the ‘Irish flow-through’.

The visa system is vital because corruption and fraud are routine. In South Africa, the home affairs department that issues passports is endlessly in the press over bribes for asylum permits or fake birth certificates. Women discover they’ve been wedded for the past decade to a foreigner they’ve never met — who will use the marriage licence to apply for citizenship and a passport.

Pretoria has done a lot to clean things up, but buying passports is big business in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, which is why so many countries insist on visas: a chance to verify details and check criminal records, all before you travel.

But it can only work if Ireland and the UK have a common policy, which they don’t. You’d think the Home Office would be seized of the need to do something, but when I called to ask what plans it had to deal with this loophole, it went into lockdown.

I put seven questions in writing to its communications team and got a flat refusal on five of them. So here they are:

1) Are measures in place to prevent travellers who enter Ireland from crossing into Northern Ireland without a visa? For example, is there any way to detect whether passengers in a car driving across the border have right of entry? Answer refused.

2) How many illegal entrants travelling without visas have been detained in Northern Ireland in the past year? Answer refused.

3) Are these law-breakers deported, and to where? Answer refused.

4) Does the government accept that the Irish border is a de facto back door to Northern Ireland? Answer refused.

5) How does the Home Office plan to stem the movement? Answer refused.

It did confirm that there are no checks for illegal entry on ferries between Northern Ireland and the mainland because ‘it’s a domestic crossing’. And yes, they ‘share information’ with Dublin. But as for the rest, I was refused any answer and the email reply was marked ‘sensitive’. The Home Office would only reply further, it said, if compelled by a Freedom of Information request.

As home secretary in 2006, John Reid said the Home Office was ‘not fit for purpose’. Indeed!

So I called the government in Dublin, which was much more co-operative and declined none of my questions. Turns out the illegal flow of people doesn’t seem to happen in reverse.

For all the talk of free movement, the Irish authorities are eagle-eyed about who crosses the other way from Northern Ireland, and often intercept illegals.

The mechanics seem to be a state secret but I was assured it happens. Racial profiling? Maybe. Following your car by camera and satellite? A possibility. With airports across the world now installing facial recognition software, it won’t be long before drivers can expect the same. From what the courteous folk in Dublin told me, the border is anything but soft. You may think you are passing undetected between two countries, but you are not.

‘This cooperation (with Britain) is essential in combating and detecting any persons not entitled to free movement,’ the Irish press officer said, adding that ‘persons attempting to move unlawfully from one jurisdiction to the other’ were arrested and detained. But the UK Home Office knew nothing of this. Or wouldn’t say.

There’s an easy solution. Just as 26 countries share a Schengen visa issued by any one of them and valid for all, so the UK and Ireland could issue a common permit for entry. Visitors from India and China now receive one sticker in their passport for what’s known as the Common Travel Area, so they can enter through Ireland and leave from the UK or the other way round. If there’s to be a ‘special arrangement’, it should start with the assumption that every person who enters one country has the potential to cross into the other.

Opponents of gun control say law-abiding citizens are the ones who license their firearms while thugs do not. Likewise, those with nothing to hide will apply for a visa. Surely, then, the British government should be worried about border jumpers who sneak in by other means.

Sajid Javid seems like one of the most competent ministers in cabinet. He took bold decisions on Islamic State fighters wanting to enter Britain with their brides and isn’t scared of a brawl. But for all the endless talk about the Irish border, his department seems to know very little about what’s really going on there — and worse, it doesn’t believe the public has a right to know.

Geoff Hill is an author and journalist who has written two books on his home country, including What Happens After Mugabe? He is Africa correspondent for the Washington Times.