Tuesday, 29 January 2019
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed) - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Common Travel Area
41. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the status of negotiations with the United Kingdom relating to the preservation of the benefits of the common travel area in terms of residency, right to work, access to public services and the right to vote; if the necessary preparations will be in place by the end of March 2019; if Irish citizens resident in the UK need to take action before the end of March 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4371/19]
What is the status of negotiations with the United Kingdom relating to the preservation of the benefits of the common travel area in terms of residency, right to work, access to public services and the right to vote? Will necessary preparations be in place by the March deadline? Do Irish citizens in the UK need to take any action prior to that?
The common travel area is a long-standing arrangement between Ireland and the UK which means Irish citizens can move freely to live, work and study in the UK on the same basis as UK citizens and vice versa. Both the Irish and British Governments have committed to the maintenance of the common travel area and the associated rights and entitlements of Irish and British citizens under this long-standing reciprocal arrangement in any circumstances.
I updated the Government on the common travel area at its meeting on 15 January 2019. Considerable progress has been achieved bilaterally in discussions with the UK over the past year involving several Departments in what has been a whole-of-Government exercise.
Ireland’s shared aim with the UK throughout has been to ensure the necessary arrangements are made in both countries so the common travel area can continue to function effectively after the UK leaves the EU. The bilateral work undertaken reaffirms the existing common travel area arrangements between Ireland and the UK and recognises the shared commitment of both to protect the associated reciprocal rights and privileges as a legitimate and fundamental public policy. It reaffirms the status that Irish and British citizens enjoy in each other's state, including the associated reciprocal rights and privileges covering free movement, the right to reside, the right to work without special permission as well as access to healthcare, social security, education at all levels and the right to vote in local and national parliamentary elections on the same basis as citizens of the other jurisdiction.
Neither Irish citizens in the UK nor British citizens in Ireland are required to take any action to protect their status and rights associated with the common travel area. After the UK leaves the EU, both Irish citizens in the UK and British citizens in Ireland will continue to enjoy these rights. Both the Irish and British Governments have committed to undertake all the work necessary, including through legislative provision, to ensure that the common travel area rights and privileges are protected. Bilateral arrangements as appropriate to each area of the common travel area will be concluded in due course and at the appropriate time. Some of that means legislation, both primary and secondary, but most of it is policy co-ordination.
I am grateful for the number of briefings we have had from the Tánaiste. The understanding I had was that a high-level memorandum of understanding between Ireland and the UK existed and was just waiting to be signed the appropriate time. When will that signing happen? Due to the fact that this is of fundamental importance to the 800,000 Irish citizens in the UK and for the many tens of thousands of its citizens in Ireland, when will we get a chance to see it to ensure that what has been set out will be achieved? We need to scrutinise that. It is a reasonable request that we would have sight of it. When will it be signed and when will we see it?
Yes. We are now coming to a point where not signing them means that we simply do not have time to be able to complete the follow-up legislation in order to be ready for 29 March, should that be necessary to protect our citizens' pensions, social welfare payments and so on. We hope to be able to do that in the coming days.
I do not have an exact date for the memorandum of understanding, but as soon as we finalise it, we will ensure we share it with Opposition parties.
As the Tánaiste knows, the common travel area has existed since the 1920s. It has never been codified in law, so the specific entitlements have never been set out and, therefore, could never be tested. It is a cause of concern that we will now have to do that for the first time. It is a reassurance that it will be a support for people, but it might have implications. For example, Dagmar Schiek, professor of European law at Queen's University, has asked fundamental questions about the rights of the spouses of Irish nationals, etc. These are things we need to set out. It is no longer an agreement; this will be a formal document that can be tested in the courts.
We need to see it and test it to ensure that, as the Tánaiste has said, it reaffirms all existing rights and entitlements. Will it be a document that can expand into the future to accommodate additional rights that might accrue to Irish citizens in the way that in the past the common travel area broadened over the decades?
That is a very reasonable set of questions. There was a choice to be made here as to whether we would put in place a formal legal treaty on the common travel area on a bilateral basis between Britain and Ireland or whether we would do it through this memorandum of understanding, which would have some legislative element to it. I understand we chose the memorandum of understanding mechanism to have the flexibility to deal with the kinds of potential issues the Deputy has raised. I am not suggesting they relate to spouses. As a result of the fact that the common travel area was in some ways quite a loose arrangement, we did not have a single item of legislation which addressed it in total; it went across multiple items of legislation. It built up as an understanding between the two countries over decades.
It kind of did. It was at least a recognition of each other's citizenship in our countries. When we joined the European Union, the Single Market and the customs union, much of that formality was never needed because it was overtaken by EU membership. The absence of the UK's EU membership obviously exposes some of that, which is why the memorandum of understanding is needed. There has been much discussion on the detail of that, including discussion with the EU, in order to ensure people are satisfied with it. When we are ready to publish that, we will share it with Opposition parties straight away. However, it is not in a condition to be published just yet.