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E-borders kills off UK-Ireland passport free travel

And Ahern espouses the electronic frontier

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The UK's implementation of an electronic borders system by 2009 will mean the end of the UK-Republic of Ireland Common Travel Area, which allows passport-free travel between the two countries. The move will not however lead to the introduction of border controls on the Republic's land border with Northern Ireland, but will lead to passport checks, or something very like them, for travellers between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland.

For air and ferry travel between the Republic and the UK, e-borders will mean that advance passenger information will be checked against watchlists by the UK ("real-time monitoring, as the Government puts it), and a passport or identity document (but the Republic of Ireland does not as yet have ID cards) will be required. The land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is however so complex and frequently used that it would be utterly impractical to operate border checks on it, even if these were politically acceptable. It therefore has to stay open and control-free, leaving a gaping hole in the UK's planned electronic fortifications.

Or not. Although e-borders is primarily aimed at policing international borders, it is heavily dependent on advanced passenger information that is gathered by airlines and ferry companies on behalf of the UK Government. This information can and will also be used for security on internal flights and ferry journeys, including those between Northern Ireland and the mainland. But being required to produce a passport or ID card as proof of identity prior to boarding a plane does not necessarily mean you're passing passport control at an international border. Got that?

Effectively, whether or not there's a formal border control becomes less relevant because the extent of checks on internal travel increases. This kind of regime is likely to become prevalent throughout Europe, as Commissioner for justice and home affairs Franco Frattini has previously suggested an EU PNR (Passenger Name Record) or API (Advance Passenger Information) system should apply to internal EU flights as well as external.

So if the UK and Republic governments wished to stretch the point, they could actually implement extensive ID checks while simultaneously claiming that the Common Travel Area was not dead, while the British Government can and will insist to Northern Ireland MPs that there will be no border checks for travellers between Northern Ireland and the Mainland. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern certainly seems ready to join in, saying that it was sensible for the Republic to introduce similar measures to the UK's, while at the same time stoutly insisting that the land border would remain open. ®

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