Writer Mary Kenny was due to travel to Roscommon to the Percy French festival. After asking about quarantine restrictions on Twitter, she writes about the backlash she received online
All through the Brexit negotiations, one continuous theme has been reiterated, especially by the British authorities: Ireland and Britain will remain a ‘common travel area’ as they have been since 1923. Whatever happens between the UK and continental EU countries, the special arrangements between these two islands will stay in place.
Not just because there is so much travel between Ireland and Britain, but because Northern Ireland must also be taken into the equation.
So when I booked a flight from Gatwick to Dublin for today, I assumed that the common travel area protocols would be operational again. Britain is easing out of lockdown, and travel arrangements are opening up with continental Europe – no problem to travel to France, Germany or Italy. Surely Ireland was in closer alignment with this common travel area.
It was only when Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on BBC TV on Sunday that British tourists would not be welcome for the present that I began to be concerned.
I’m not a British tourist but an Irish citizen and I have a residence in Dublin; and I had been due to travel on to Roscommon to speak at the delightful Percy French Festival next week.
Assuming I would be entitled to do this was perhaps naive, and a hostile Twitterstorm followed when I raised the question on social media.
I was all but described as a murderer, and if I set foot in Ireland from Britain I’d be selfishly and arrogantly putting everyone in the country in danger.
In a subsequent interview, RTÉ’s Sarah McInerney asked me what I would say to the relatives of the 1,700 people who have died from Covid-19 in Ireland.
What did I say to the relatives of seven friends and colleagues I’ve known who have died since March 17 of cancer, heart disease, renal failure and stroke?
Death is always a loss and a grief, and I’m more than familiar with its impact. I’m also by the law of averages moving towards the mortality departure lounge myself.
Yet life has to go on, and there will always be a balance of risks and probabilities to be weighed up. There will always be costs as well as benefits to any measures taken.
If it were remiss of me not to check on travel regulations about entering Ireland then there were no evident prompts. Ryanair sent me two reminders about baggage allowance but no warnings – until yesterday – about Covid-19 quarantine rules. The Department of Foreign Affairs has information about travel on its website but for those of us who use the common travel area between Britain and Ireland it’s not usually a port of call.
Well, now I know: anyone entering Ireland must quarantine for 14 days and the overall message is: “Stay away! You’re not welcome!” Decades of branding Ireland as the destination of the “Céad Míle Fáilte” can be said to have been erased.
And yet these regulations seem to be sometimes hazily enforced. Friends who travelled to Dublin from London last week noted there were few formalities – they were just given a passenger locator form to note their address in Ireland.
But there was no follow-up or verification, and as the forms were issued on printed paper, rather than electronically, my friends concluded the data was “probably not particularly robust”.
Another strategy is to fly from London to Belfast. Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom so anyone in any other part of the UK can legally and without prohibition travel there.
Hiring a vehicle to drive across the Border is apparently not a complicated manoeuvre.
I don’t intend to break the law or to flout regulations so I will not take this route or for the moment any other.
But I still think it is a sad state of affairs that Ireland should be so shut down and shut off.
Nothing like this has occurred since World War II when hostilities made travel difficult and neutrality reinforced an insular, naval-gazing collective psychological attitude.
Moreover are the rules requiring travellers to quarantine actually legal? A well-informed source has drawn my attention to the EU guidelines: the Commission “gave clear guidance to member states to open borders for all travel by June 15”.
Article 45 of the Lisbon Treaty stipulates that under freedom of movement and residence “every citizen of the Union has the right to move and reside freely within the territory of the member states”. Technically, as a citizen of the EU, I have a legal right to entry and free movement.
It’s ironic that Ireland, which is proud of being a loyal EU state, is now the exception within the EU in setting limits, while Britain, which is leaving the EU, is facilitating more free movement.
Naturally I believe people should take sensible precautions. I agree with wearing masks, hand-washing, disinfecting measures and reasonable social distancing.
It’s right that vulnerable people should be shielded – the biggest scandal to emerge from this pandemic is the way that care homes and other locations likely to attract clusters have been neglected.
Naturally I believe in constant testing and tracking – and testing is getting faster and more effective all the time.
But I also believe that life’s risks have to be weighed in proportionate balance.
The Irish Government will make another announcement next Monday about travel regulations. But only time will tell, overall, if the risks have been proportionately weighed.