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Commons Library briefing: The Common Travel Area and the special status of Irish nationals in UK law

Published Friday, July 15, 2016

There has been some speculation about how the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK and the special status of Irish nationals in UK law might be affected by a UK withdrawal from the EU. A Westminster Hall debate on “Implications of the UK leaving the EU for the UK-Ireland border” is scheduled for 19 July.

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The Common Travel Area

The Common Travel Area (CTA) is a special travel zone between the UK, the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. It dates back to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922.

This briefing focuses on how the CTA operates between the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Nationals of CTA countries can travel freely within the CTA without being subject to passport controls.

The arrangements for non-CTA nationals are more complex. Although there are minimal immigration checks for journeys started within the CTA, non-CTA nationals must have the relevant immigration permission for the country they are seeking to enter. EU and EEA nationals have prevailing rights of entry and residence in the UK and Ireland under EU ‘free movement’ law.

Although both countries maintain their own visa and immigration policies within the context of the CTA, there is a significant degree of practical cooperation and policy coordination in order to ensure the security of the CTA. The ‘soft’ land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is one reason for this. Routine controls at the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are generally regarded as impractical and undesirable.

Irish nationals’ special status in UK law

Irish nationals have a special status in UK law which is separate to and pre-dates the rights they have as EU citizens.

In short, Ireland is not considered to be a “foreign country” for the purpose of UK laws, and Irish citizens are not considered to be “aliens”. Furthermore, Irish citizens are treated as if they have permanent immigration permission to remain in the UK from the date they take up “ordinary residence” here.

This special status affects Irish nationals’ rights across a number of areas, including eligibility for British citizenship, eligibility to vote and stand for election, and eligibility for certain welfare benefits. As a result, they have more advantageous rights than other EU/EEA nationals in some areas.

Brexit: Potential implications

Some commentators have raised concerns about the future of the CTA in the event of a UK withdrawal from the EU. There are mixed views about whether Brexit might lead to more cross-border customs and immigration controls, and how easily these could be implemented, for example. ‘Leave’ campaigners did not generally envisage a need for significant changes.

Since the referendum result, the Irish and UK governments have confirmed a shared intention to maintain the benefits of the CTA, although the actual implications of Brexit are not yet clear. The nature of the future UK-EU relationship is a relevant factor.

A Westminster Hall debate on “Implications of the UK leaving the EU for the UK-Ireland border” is scheduled for 19 July.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7661

Author: Melanie Gower

Topics: Immigration, Nationality

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