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There’s an obvious solution to the migration row: compatible national identity cards for Ireland and Britain

Rights groups who raised valid objections to the intrusiveness of identity cards need to accept that ship has sailed - the alternative is Kafkaesque bureaucracy and racial profiling

It is less than 20 years since the British and Irish governments were discussing compatible national identity cards to manage a shared immigration policy.

In today’s era of frosty Anglo-Irish relations, this seems almost more incredible than 52 per cent of Sinn Féin supporters wanting a hard Border to stop migrants, as reported by an Ireland Thinks poll.

Yet identity cards were a serious project. They remain the most credible solution to the trilemma of controlling immigration, preserving the Common Travel Area and keeping the Border open.

Tony Blair’s Labour Government legislated for British national identity cards in 2006, after years of debate. Cards were linked to a database holding 50 pieces of biometric information on each holder. They were rolled out from 2008 and used to confirm entitlement to public services, effectively turning bureaucrats into border guards, although more efficiency rather than less immigration was the primary goal at the time.


It was immediately recognised on both sides of the Irish Sea that Ireland would have to introduce a parallel scheme in the medium term to secure the external frontier of the Common Travel Area and the rights of British and Irish citizens within it.

At a 2006 session of the British-Irish Inter-parliamentary Body, Fine Gael TD Jim O’Keefe said a public services card could provide “an Irish solution to an Irish problem”, by evolving into a compatible identity card in all but name.

London’s solution to a Northern Ireland problem was to offer nationalists a card without a UK flag or ‘British citizen’ label.

An incoming Conservative government scrapped the British scheme in 2010, mainly on civil liberties grounds. Ireland’s Public Services Card was introduced the following year but its progress has stalled due to data protection concerns.

Immigration has revived the idea in Britain, however. In 2022, after the Conservatives proposed their Rwanda asylum plan, Labour’s shadow minister for immigration, Stephen Kinnock, revealed the party was looking “very, very carefully” at mandatory identity cards to reassure the public “we have control of our borders”.

Irish Government sources briefed last weekend they are waiting for Labour’s replacement to the Rwanda scheme. This is it, or a key part of it. Kinnock said Blair’s card failed because the biometric database contained too much information. Labour’s new card would offer “a very basic form of ID because that then doesn’t get you into areas of civil liberties as much”.

The implications for Ireland were officially recognised several years earlier. For almost a century, the Common Travel Area operated as a de facto shared external border, with free movement assumed for everyone inside. In 2019, then-tánaiste Simon Coveney and his British counterpart David Lidington signed a historic memorandum formalising the Common Travel Area. This recognised free movement as for British and Irish citizens only, leaving everyone else potentially subject to checks anywhere. If this is not achieved by identity cards, the alternative is Kafkaesque bureaucracy and racial profiling. Hapless combinations of all three have been emerging in the absence of a proper system. The UK has biometric identity cards for non-EEA citizens, although they must use separate means to confirm they can work and rent property – the latter required only in England.

In Ireland, the Public Services Card staggers on, the Passport Card is a sort of international identity card and racial profiling is standard practice on cross-Border transport. In the UK and Ireland, citizens and non-citizens can be asked to confirm their status in a bewildering variety of ways by an array of public officials and private businesses, including all employers.

Rights groups who raised valid objections to the intrusiveness of identity cards need to accept that ship has sailed. What largely remains are the objections of activists who simply do not want any immigration enforcement – a fringe view that is distorting politics by obstructing delivery of consistent and effective systems.

Some people have suggested a united Ireland as the solution to an open Border. That would still require scrapping the Common Travel Area, severing a link to Britain supposedly vital to securing support for a united Ireland.

Some people have noted a united Ireland could join the Schengen zone, yet Schengen depends heavily on identity cards to police immigration. Denmark is the only member state without them, although it uses residency and work permits to the same effect.

Across Europe, lack of identity cards is considered the critical pull factor drawing migrants into the UK and Ireland. The French find this particularly infuriating, not just because of migrant camps on their coastline, but because they associate the UK’s casual labour market with the worst excesses of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. Perhaps identity cards might be more acceptable in Ireland if they are seen as European. Ironically, that was always in the background of British objections.