Northern Ireland news

Planned UK cross border travel hurdle 'highly problematic': Dublin

John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism NI
John Breslin

Cross border health services face disruption following the planned introduction of a new travel document the UK is demanding must be applied for before non-Irish citizens can travel over the border, the Irish Government said last night.

Tourists and residents, including from the rest of the European Union, will need to apply under the Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) scheme before being allowed to travel to Northern Ireland.

But the planned roll out of the scheme this year has attracted heavy criticism from a broad spectrum of organisations, from human rights groups to businesses, particularly in the tourism sector.

Now, the Dublin government has stepped forward with a warning the ETA "threatens the fluid nature of movement on the island and North-South cooperation, including tourism and cross border service provision".

"The UK’s plans to establish an ESTA-type Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) scheme that would apply to non-Irish residents of Ireland and tourists who wish to travel from South to North are highly problematic," a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said in a strongly worded statement.

ESTA is the document that needs to be completed prior to travelling to the US from visa waiver countries.

"The impact on tourism in Northern Ireland, for example, could be very significant as many tourists arrive in Northern Ireland via this jurisdiction. The Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance and Tourism Ireland have articulated the risks very clearly," the department said.

"At political and official level the Government has been working to address concerns about the ETA proposals with the UK Government since late 2021."

The Home Office plans to roll out ETA over the course of this year with full implementation by its end. It applies to all citizens of countries that currently do not need a visa to enter the UK. The EU is introducing its own ETIAS visa waiver document in November but it only applies in the Schengen travel area, not Ireland.

London last night played down the impact of the ETA on cross border travel and on communities in the region with officials claiming it will not be "onerous or burdensome". While all details have not yet been worked, it is likely to be valid for two years once successfully applied for.

The Home Office also insisted "there are - and will continue to be - no routine immigration controls whatsoever on the Ireland-Northern Ireland land border, or on journeys within the Common Travel Area".

But then the spokesperson added: “Those arriving in the UK, including Northern Ireland, will need to continue to enter in line with the UK’s immigration framework, and follow Electronic Travel Authorisation rules when introduced."

“There’s a little bit of a nonsense," said John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism NI, in an interview last week. "On the one hand the Government are saying you’re required to have it, but on the other hand they’re saying no one will be checking to find out if you have one or not."

Mr McGrillen believes tourism will be impacted despite assurances from London that they are working "to mitigate concerns".

He said: "“If you think of an agent who has been selling Cork and Kerry for decades, and we’ve only started to convince these people to start to sell Northern Ireland, the risk is that when they’re talking to a client they might suggest to them, ‘well, you can save yourself that hassle by just staying south of the border’.

“That’s one of the key risks.”

Transport companies are going to be expected to check and confirm a traveller has the right documentation prior to travel and face penalties for failing to do so, according to Home Office's own published documents.

The fine could be up to £2,000 per person, the Northern Ireland Affairs committee heard last year, The Home Office did not immediately comment on the amount.

While the emphasis in the legislation passed last year was on airlines and ferry companies, the onus could land on train and bus companies, tour operators and even taxi firms here. Translink last night declined to comment on the potential impact.

In its statement, the DFA, now led by former Taoiseach Micheál Martin, said: "It is welcome that in recent months the Home Office and the Northern Ireland Office have articulated an increased awareness of the complexities such a scheme presents in the context of Northern Ireland and are engaging with us on this matter.

"We will continue to press for exemptions to the UK’s ETA scheme."

Northern Ireland news