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The Common Travel Area and the special status of Irish nationals in UK law

Published Friday, June 9, 2017

The Common Travel Area is a special travel zone between the Republic of Ireland and the UK, Isle of Man and 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 the Republic of Ireland.

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The Common Travel Area

Nationals of Common Travel Area (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. Until the UK exits the EU, citizens of EEA member states have prevailing rights of entry and residence in the UK and Ireland under EU ‘free movement’ law.

Although both the Republic of Ireland and the UK maintain their own visa and immigration policies, there is a significant degree of practical cooperation and policy coordination in order to ensure the security of the CTA. Controls on the Irish border are also 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, the Republic of 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. It is thought that, as a result, Irish nationals have more rights than other EU/ EEA nationals resident in the UK.

The potential implications of Brexit

The future of the CTA post-Brexit is uncertain. The UK and Irish governments remain united in their desire to maintain the CTA and EU negotiating guidelines state that the Union will respect such bilateral agreements. Nevertheless expert evidence received by Parliamentary select committees warned that Brexit poses “a real and substantive threat to the very existence” of the CTA and cautioned that the maintenance of current arrangements should not be taken for granted.

Whilst there is widespread political agreement that there should be no ‘hard border’ in Ireland, the absence of controls on the Irish border post-Brexit would make it unique amongst the EU’s external borders.

Professor Bernard Ryan of Leicester University has questioned the extent to which the rights of Irish nationals in the UK are secured by existing law. He argues that new legislation will be required to protect Irish nationals’ status in the UK post-Brexit.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7661

Authors: Terry McGuinness; Melanie Gower

Topics: Immigration, Nationality

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