The Azure Forum Strategic Insights

Securing the Common Travel Area in 2021

Edward Burke | 02 October 2020


The security partnership between the UK and Ireland is generally robust and efficient. But the UK’s access to EU agencies and tools may soon lapse. The type of future security relationship between the EU and the UK will depend on the outcome of ongoing talks. In the interim, the Irish and British governments should continue to seize opportunities for greater bilateral security cooperation in order to protect the Common Travel Area.


Any interruption to British-Irish security cooperation as a result of a failure to negotiate a suitable ‘tool-kit’ between the EU and the UK to replace (or allow continued access to) EU Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) instruments will lead to sudden, potentially severe, consequences. The exclusion of the UK from EU instruments such as the European Arrest Warrant, agencies such as Europol and Eurojust, as well as EU crime and terrorism databases is a well-recognised threat to both British and European security.

Irish officials have done well to highlight the importance of the Common Travel Area (CTA), recognised repeatedly in EU texts on Brexit. Given that responsibility for national security resides with Member States, in the event of ‘no deal’ it is likely that the EU will introduce a number of exemptions with respect to the exchange of data to prevent a breakdown in police and intelligence cooperation along the UK-Irish border. Separating terrorist activities from serious or ordinary crime – such as smuggling – in the border region is no easy task; the exemptions should be broad enough to allow for the continuation of much day-to-day cross-border police cooperation.

Reciprocity of rights between Ireland and the UK is now once again unique in Europe, a relationship that many other EU citizens who travel and work in the UK would dearly wish for their own countries. Political resentment over Brexit must now give way to a cleareyed determination to secure the CTA. And that, in an era of Islamist / far-right terrorism and the proliferation of Russian and Chinese intelligence activities in Europe, will be no easy task.

Risks and mitigation

Existing CTA tools could be ramped up in the event of an increased security threat or an urgent requirement for closer bilateral cooperation. The Common Travel Area Forum (CTAF) is one such mechanism where British and Irish officials can meet to discuss joint policy CTA-related initiatives. For example, over the last decade the CTAF has been used to facilitate the quicker exchange of biometric visa data, biographical data relating to visa applications from ‘high risk’ countries, and information on failed asylum applications.

Historically, for obvious reasons related to paramilitary activity, security cooperation between both governments has mostly been routed north-south, between Dublin and Belfast. In future, greater emphasis and liaison will have to be placed on the east-west relationship including between officials in London and Dublin but also elsewhere, such as at GCHQ, the UK signals intelligence service, and at key points of entry and departure such as in Merseyside.

The threat of Islamist terrorism is much greater in Great Britain. However, extremists can abuse the CTA in an attempt to evade detection. The political risk of such an emerging pattern – where extremists relocate to Ireland to avoid detection in order to plot attacks elsewhere, including in the UK – is obvious. The strain on Franco-Belgian relations after the Paris attacks in 2015 offer a warning to Irish political leaders to adequately resource security agencies to secure not only Ireland’s own borders but also proactively monitor and investigate threats to close partners and fellow EU Member States.

Three future options

There are a number of possible policy options to strengthen the security of the CTA that the British and Irish governments could choose to explore. First, a shared CTA database of suspected terrorists and serious criminals could be jointly developed, updated and distributed in both jurisdictions. Care would have to be taken to respect Irish, EU and UK data sharing regulations but a coordinated, secure exchange of such information should be possible under the auspices of the CTA.

Second, technology, liaison and information exchange at key ports of entry should be updated and improved. More Irish police, security and customs officials could be seconded to UK agencies, ports and airports and vice versa in the case of their British counterparts. This would allow officials to have better informed discussions on how to improve the exchange of data to counter terrorism and serious crime in accordance with the practices, laws and regulations of both jurisdictions. Given that serious crime includes human trafficking, specific task forces could be established to combat slavery and childtrafficking networks occurring in the CTA.

Third, exchange of best practices and information on probation services and counterradicalisation programmes could help reduce the potential for individuals falling through gaps or divergences between different jurisdictions across the CTA. For now, due to uncertainty over potential British divergences with respect to data protection legislation, it may not be possible to construct Schengen-type security tools and databases for the CTA. However, in the event of a full or partial British exclusion from JHA agencies and instruments, such mechanisms of normalised exchange of intelligence and cooperation should be a long-term ambition, as long as these do not violate Ireland’s EU obligations and interests. The CTA may not survive the 21st Century without them.

Edward Burke


Edward Burke is Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Nottingham and an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Azure Forum.


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