Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Ceisteanna (2)

Martin Kenny

Ceist:

2. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his views on passport checks taking place on the Border at Garda checkpoints and on public transport, the reason for same and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47532/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Justice)

As the Minister is aware, in recent times, checkpoints have been placed on the Border. There has been a renewed effort by An Garda Síochána to have these checks and people have been asked for their passports. I have come across cases where Irish citizens living in the North and working in the South who have crossed the Border every day for the past ten to 15 years have found that in the past 12 to 18 months, they have been stopped and asked for their passports. I have also spoken to people who have told me that this also happened to them when they used bus transport. It is a new phenomenon about which many people seem to be concerned because they are worried about the impact of Brexit and that this is the beginning of that impact.

As the Deputy will appreciate, every State has a duty to protect its own security and prevent illegal immigration, human trafficking and other organised crime activity. The Border with Northern Ireland is somewhat unique as it is a jurisdictional border between the two states where the common travel area also exists, in other words, where Irish and British citizens are entitled to travel between both states. However, it is the case that immigration controls have to be deployed from time to time to detect and prevent persons abusing the common travel area to enter the State illegally.

Although there are no permanent immigration controls in place between this jurisdiction and Northern Ireland, An Garda Síochána implements mobile immigration controls to tackle illegal immigration and human trafficking. As the Deputy is aware, a central tenet of policing in this country is to uphold people’s rights and it is important to note that while these interventions target potential immigration abuse and other crimes, they are not passport controls. In this context, I am informed that there is daily operational level co-operation between immigration officers and members of the Garda National Immigration Bureau and their UK counterparts, including intelligence-led operations, to prevent abuse of the common travel area. A person can be refused leave to enter the State if it is determined that the purpose of entry is an abuse of the common travel area. There is a long-standing regulatory framework around the common travel area that has been agreed between the Irish Government and authorities and the authorities in the UK.

I am informed by the Garda authorities that the immigration border control unit conducts immigration checks, both preventative and intelligence-led. This includes checkpoints and checks on public transport or other public service vehicles travelling from Northern Ireland, including on the Enterprise train. These checks have been conducted over a number of years in order to identify and prevent persons from illegally entering the jurisdiction in line with the requirements of sections 11 and 12 of the Immigration Act 2004 relating to documents of identity and supply of information and, in some cases, the production of documents.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

It is evident from the number of detections of illegal immigrants entering the State through Northern Ireland that immigration controls are required from time to time to prevent abuse of the common travel area. As of 31 October this year, 158 illegal immigrants had been detected attempting to enter the State in this way.

These checks are fully compatible with the Good Friday Agreement and common travel area arrangements and I am satisfied that An Garda Síochána and the UK authorities, including the Police Service of Northern Ireland, continue to work together very closely to enhance and facilitate law enforcement and public safety in both jurisdictions.

I am sure the Minister would accept that many people experience this as a hardening of the Border. They experience it as people being asked for documentation they were not asked for heretofore. Even during the days of conflict, this level of identification - people being asked to produce their passports - was seldom sought. This is now happening. Many people on this island who voted for the Good Friday Agreement understood that it was all about removing the Border and making it invisible, which has happened and has been an achievement by everyone concerned. I have spoken to people who are in the transport business. Certainly people who drive buses tell me that in recent times, this has become something that more regularly happens to them. Buses are being stopped and personnel go up and down buses and ask people for their passports or identity. This would have been a very rare occurrence up until probably 18 months or two years ago. It is now happening and people are afraid that it is an agenda to harden the Border as a precursor to whatever kind of Brexit may come.

We understand that the Government has an obligation and nobody is suggesting that there is no obligation in this regard. We are on an island and people who come here must go through ports or airports where they must produce identification anyway. The issue of the Border in Ireland should be something we recognise. The Minister has already said that it is a unique situation.

I disagree with the Deputy when he points to these immigration checks as being somewhat new. They are not new. They are under our legislation and the common travel arrangements. It is evident from a number of detections of illegal immigrants entering the State through Northern Ireland that immigration controls are required from time to time to prevent abuse of the common travel area. In fact, as of 31 October 2019 alone, 158 illegal immigrants had been detected attempting to enter the State in this way through Northern Ireland. These checks are fully compatible with the Good Friday Agreement and the arrangements under the common travel area. I am satisfied that An Garda Síochána and the UK authorities, including the Police Service of Northern Ireland, continue to work together very closely to enhance and facilitate law enforcement and public safety in both jurisdictions. This is not a new phenomenon.

I accept that it is not a new phenomenon from the point of view of the legislation that governs it but it is a new phenomenon from the point of view of it being applied and implemented so harshly. That is the point. We have the DUP and others in the North who clearly want to build a border that is as hard as possible. There is an onus on all of us to ensure that does not succeed and that we do not allow that to happen. Nobody is suggesting that there should be open borders or that immigrants should flow into the country freely. We all understand that. We are on an island and anyone who comes to the island must go through an airport or sea port and there are checks in those places. The Minister would have to acknowledge that this issue is something we all understand but we also understand that we have the Good Friday Agreement, which is about washing away the hard Border and making sure it does not negatively affect the lives of people who live in the Border region or people who want to move freely across the Border. I understand what the law says and also that the law has always been there but the point is that the Garda National Immigration Bureau is now implementing it in a much harsher manner than it has done until now, which is more than regrettable.

I ask the Minister to use his offices to ensure that discontinues as quickly as possible.

Any measures outlined by the Deputy are fully in accordance with the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and the common travel area. In this regard, the Government and our colleagues in the UK are firmly committed to maintaining the common travel area and the rights enjoyed by our citizens who travel freely between these islands and between North and South every day. In this regard, there is a long tradition of co-operation between Ireland and the UK. We will continue to work closely together to enhance the security of the external common travel area border in order to facilitate what must be legitimate travel. Implementation of this work is overseen at senior level in the Department of Justice and Equality and in the Home Office in the UK through the common travel area forum, which meets regularly to address matters of mutual concern and interest.

As I said, there is daily co-operation on an operational level between immigration officers, members of the Garda National Immigration Bureau and their counterparts in Northern Ireland. This co-operation is intelligence-led in order to prevent abuse of the common travel area. Any such measures are fully consistent with the legal framework we enjoy now.