Blog post

Northern Ireland's hidden borders

There has been a resistance to Brexit causing 'hard borders' around Northern Ireland. But, as Luke Butterly argues, the reality for those who do not meet the criteria of 'Irishness' or 'Britishness' is that there has been a hard border on the island for many years.

Luke Butterly 7 January 2019

Barrier around an immigration detention centre. Hope Street, Larne, Northern Ireland. Credit: Emmet Thornton

Since the outcome of the Brexit referendum there has been a significant resistance to the prospect of (re)introducting 'hard borders' around Northern Ireland. The UK government has recently reaffirmed the importance of “protecting the ability to move freely within the UK and between the UK and Ireland” and noted that this ability “carries symbolic significance in implementing the Good Friday Agreement’s commitment to the continued respect of the civil, political, social and cultural rights of the communities in Northern Ireland.”

Few would argue against this. However, the reality of a hard border for those who do not fit a preconceived mould of 'Irishness' or 'Britishness' has existed for many years, and racial profiling is a fundamental feature of the so-called “Operation Gull” along the border, despite guarantees to the contrary under the Common Travel Area (CTA).

Operation Gull

The past twenty years has seen a steep increase of migrants being demonised in public discourse and criminalised in the law. British governments of different stripes have greatly increased the powers to deprive migrants of life, liberty and happiness; have overseen a massive expansion of the indefinite immigration detention system; turned nurses, teachers, and landlords into border guards; and pursued a general hardening of borders, hearts, and minds.

In pursuit of this agenda, there has been increasing reliance on the control of movement within the CTA – a special travel zone between the Republic of Ireland and the UK – with the cooperation of enforcement agencies on both sides of the border.

Other than a period around WWII, there have never been routine passport controls between independent Ireland and the UK. The 1971 Immigration Act states that arrival in and departure from the UK from elsewhere in the CTA cannot be subject to (passport) control. Yet secretive immigration enforcement operations have operated along Northern Ireland’s borders since at least 2003.

‘Operation Gull’ is a joint exercise between Irish and British police and immigration forces. The stated aim is to prevent the movement of undocumented migrants across the Irish land border and the ‘sea border’ with Britain. Police and immigration officers board buses, search trains, stop private cars, and question passengers on ferries and planes. The operation is now known to involve the UK Border Agency, the Police Service NI (PSNI), and Police Scotland, as well as the Garda Síochána, and the Garda National Immigration Bureau (the Irish police, and immigration, authorities). In 2016 almost 800 people were ‘intercepted’ under Gull – a 66% increase on the year before. While there is little public information about Gull, even less is known about ‘Operation Bi-Vector’, a UK-wide counter terrorism operation run by the intelligence branch of the PSNI in the CTA. What is known is that its powers have been used 12,479 times in Northern Ireland in 2013-2016.

Despite this high number of stops, in none of the cases was anyone detained for counter-terror purposes. However rather than being released, individuals were handed over to immigration authorities – thereby using emergency counter-terror laws to side-step the lack of legislated immigration checks. In any particular stop it is by no means clear which operation is being used.

Racial profiling along the sea and land borders

While little is officially acknowledged about Gull’s operating procedures, it clearly functions under serious internal contradictions. In a geographical area where routine passport controls are prohibited by UK legislation, officers are nonetheless conducting ‘non routine’, so-called ‘intelligence-led’ checks.

The fact that these operations are taking place at all is troubling. Even more serious is the effect of these operations in practice. The Law Centre (NI) has previously stated that they were “concerned that individuals are being targeted on grounds of ethnicity/nationality or other discriminatory grounds,” and raised doubts about the legal basis of the operation.

Home Office documents make clear the legal limitations they face when operating within the CTA, noting that its officers

“do not have all of their normal powers to carry out immigration controls in respect of persons travelling within the common travel area (CTA).

Officers are entitled to carry out intelligence led operations designed to intercept persons who should not be in the country on the basis of cooperation from the general public. However, individuals are under no obligation to comply and a failure to comply does not constitute a reason to ask further questions.”

Several investigations have shown that in practice, officers determine ‘who should not be in the country’ primarily by targeting people who don’t match preconceived notions of what Irish or British people ‘look’ or ‘sound’ like. The Law Centre also lamented the lack of publicly available guidelines (“if there are any”); and the absence of any “independent, transparent, oversight of Operation Gull”.

As with the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies, in addition to the punitive action taken against undocumented migrants when they cross these allegedly non-existent borders around Northern Ireland, these operations also target all other migrants, and British and Irish people of colour.

This isn’t the first time ‘intelligence’ has meant skin tone: it was reported that up to one in three people stopped by immigration enforcement teams in the UK’s biggest cities was British, which lead critics to cast doubt on official claims that such stops are ‘intelligence-led’. Prominent Glasgow human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar said “there is definitely racial profiling going on” and MP Tulip Siddiq said the “statistics reveal a system which seems arbitrary [and] unsophisticated”.

Our Hidden Borders

In 2009, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) released ‘Our Hidden Borders’. Their report - based on evidence gathered through interviews with senior and operational staff involved in Gull, people who had been detained, as well as on-site visits - raised ‘serious concerns’ in relation to racial profiling, unlawful detentions, and questioned the entire rationale and implementation of the operation.

The report noted that “immigration officers could not articulate, or provide in written form, a standard process for conducting immigration enforcement under Operation Gull. When probed further... immigration officers appeared to contradict one another in how they approached the job.”  (Even the UK chief inspector of borders said he was “concerned that staff lack confidence in the legality of the powers they are using.”)

This ambiguity led to revealing comments, as when an officer stated that a “passengers accent was an important factor” in determining whether someone was ‘who should not be in the country’.

Nazia Latif, one of the authors of the ‘Our Hidden Borders’ report, shadowed immigration officers conducting Operation Gull at Belfast City Airport. She wrote:

“One immigration officer complained that the day had not been much fun and when asked further to explain what he meant by ‘fun’ he replied that immigration enforcement was like being paid to clean a park and if by the end of the day the park was not clean ‘questions would be asked’. Such views were not uncharacteristic of those expressed by immigration officers – that certain profiles of people were not only undesirable but determined to deceive them and the immigration laws of the UK. Many expressed those profiles in terms of nationalities but the question must be asked how easily those conceptions held by immigration officers can be disentangled from ethnicity, particularly in the few seconds of initial contact between an immigration officer and disembarking passenger or on a reconnaissance visit.”

While very few stories about the impact of Gull are ever heard, those that make it into the media clearly demonstrate the reality of this situation for people of colour. In 2005, Frank Kakopa travelled to Northern Ireland with his wife and two young children for a weekend break. When they arrived to Belfast from their flight from England, Frank – originally from Zimbabwe – was detained, questioned for several hours, told he was an ‘illegal immigrant’ and taken to Maghaberry Prison, where he was subjected to a full body search. His wife and children were left stranded. Frank said of his ordeal:

“It was so humiliating. They were chaining people up like animals. I refused to be handcuffed. I said I was not going to walk past my children in chains. My daughter was screaming. I couldn't look at her . . . I was struggling to control myself.”

He raised his treatment with the Equality Commission, and took a case against the immigration authorities. Frank settled the case out of court for £7,500, saying

"I don't think I could have managed to stand up in court and go through it all. We are private people. We are all very damaged by this."

(While several payouts have been made over Gull’s 15 years of operation, the total figure is not made public.)

In 2007, the year Frank was given his apology, the Irish Times reported on the experience of a Nigerian family – also living legally in the UK and carrying the paperwork to prove it – who were travelling from Scotland to Northern Ireland. As they disembarked from the ferry, they were stopped by immigration agents at Belfast harbour.

Bola*, the mother of the family, told reporters:

"They said they were going to deport us. I told them we had done nothing wrong. They said we were lying. Before they took him away, I spoke to my husband in my own language. They said I was not allowed to do that. I had to speak English."

The father, Paul*, was detained, first in a police station, and held in Dungavel immigration detention centre in Scotland for 10 days before he was released.

Barbara Muldoon, a solicitor who took the first cases against Gull, was quoted as saying that what happened to Frank, Paul and their families were an examples of  “a heavy-handed, racist approach” to black people coming into Northern Ireland. She added:

"Their rights are being trampled on. They are being left traumatised, angry and upset. This is meant to be the new Northern Ireland. There seems to be a deathly silence from our politicians."

Singled Out

In late 2011 the Migrants Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) published ‘Singled Out’, “a brief overview of ethnic profiling in Ireland and its impact on migrant workers” – including racial profiling during cross-border travel. Researchers both witnessed and heard from people about their experiences of racial profiling by police and immigration officers while crossing the north-south border. In addition to migrants from the EU and elsewhere, this included Irish women who are black and who reported being racially profiled.

Irish legislation from 2004 means that anyone entering the Irish state, including by the land border, must carry a passport. However, Irish and British are exempt, raising questions about how such a law is policed. The experiences in the MRCI report clearly show that officers board the bus and choose, on the basis of race and other ethnic indicators who is Irish – and who isn’t. During one such stop, Virginia* - a black Irish woman – rightly told the officers “I’m an Irish citizen, I don’t have to show you ID”. Yet, it was not until she showed a bank card that they moved on. She said this treatment differed from that experienced by the white Irish passengers on the bus who weren’t carrying ID (nor were expected to).

Virginia said of Gardaí and Immigration Officers:

“They have too much power. It’s so open to abuse. I was targeted because of my apparent ethnicity, as were others. This is not going to get any easier. There will be second and third generation Irish citizens and it will be divisive; it will cause bigger problems down the road... They lack a clear understanding of the fact that nationality, ethnicity, and race are separate things, they are not interchangeable. I don’t understand why it’s so complicated.”

Given these experiences, it is no surprise that the report noted that “some interviewees from minority ethnic backgrounds reported that ethnic profiling became more obvious once they had an Irish passport.”

Jules Gnezekora, a British-Ivorian citizen, was stopped and profiled four times in eight days while travelling between his home in Northern Ireland to Scotland. He says that each time he was the only person from a black or minority ethnic background, and the only person stopped. He was questioned by immigration officers about why he was traveling to Northern Ireland and about his place of birth.

Jules told the Guardian:

“They singled me out. Even after asking to see my passport and seeing it was British they continued to ask questions about where I was going and how long I was in the country for…It was like there was this assumption that the passport may not have been mine and I wasn’t entitled to it.”

In a statement, the Home Office said that their “officers speak to members of the travelling public using these routes, regardless of appearance, and a consensual request for photographic ID can form part of that conversation.”

Daniel Holder of Committee of the Administration of Justice (CAJ) said that this response showed “that the Home Office clearly knows it has no power to conduct passport checks in the Irish Sea or on the land border because of the CTA.” He added that “It’s not at all clear to passengers that such checks are technically ‘voluntary’.”

Internal controls and the Good Friday Agreement

In their report, the NIHRC questioned whether such operations were “a form of internal immigration control whereby people […] are routinely stopped by state officials and subjected to questioning about their personal movements and intentions.” They noted that even those who had legal residency were being “stopped, detained and questioned for several hours”. This was stated as being “unique to Northern Ireland because immigration officers do not normally monitor people as they move internally within the UK from one city/region to another.” Someone on a train from London to Edinburgh, or a bus from Swansea to Bristol “would not normally expect to be met by immigration officers asking for identification as they disembark.”

Equally problematic is the issue summed up in the MRCI report recommendations, where they concluded:

“Following the Good Friday Agreement, border checkpoints were removed but are now gradually being re-introduced for the purposes of immigration control. Such measures undermine the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and need to be stopped.”

In addition to the issues with racial profiling, unlawful detentions, and internal immigration controls, the Commission questioned the basis of the operation itself. The fact that individuals who only have a permission to be in one or the other jurisdiction are being detained on the suspicion that they intend to cross the border amounts to “taking punitive action against individuals before they have broken the law is unacceptable.” Officials in Irish airports can and do refuse entry to passengers with valid visas to enter the state, if they believe that the person is intending to travel on to the UK.

Thus, the NIHRC concluded that

“Crucial, of course, is the very real possibility that Operation Gull punishes people who had no intention of abusing the Common Travel Area. Yet, people exercising rights of free movement are reprimanded tens of miles from the border with the Republic of Ireland, on grounds of simply an immigration officer’s suspicion that they may travel to a bordering state.”


During discussions on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill this March, this issue came up again. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the NI and Scotland Office gave assurances that, following Brexit:

“There will be no checks whatever for journeys across the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, nor between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. As I said earlier, this includes any aspect of what those checks might look like or be interpreted to look like. That is not what will be happening.”

And that

“I am very happy to reinforce the clear statement that there can be no racial profiling at a border, whether it be routine, quixotic or even accidental. That cannot be the policy or the direction; there cannot be even a hint of that going on at the border.”

Yet, as a new report by BrexitLawNI – a research project by northern Irish organisations and academics – notes, “it is precisely the current methods that have drawn concerns about racial profiling.”

In addition to echoing early findings about racial profiling at the borders, the researchers “consistently heard...[that] the situation has already deteriorated since the Brexit referendum; [and that] there are concerns of further deterioration when Brexit actually happens.”

If Brexit goes ahead, local organisations fear the possibility that as a trade-off for no (increased) hardening of the border, there will be a ramped-up version of the hostile environment, turning Northern Ireland into ‘One Big Border’. Others warn of Northern Ireland “becoming the most ‘immigration policed’ jurisdiction on these islands, with the existing practices and problems of racial profiling being replicated on an industrial scale.”  While much of the border debate has been focused on trade rather than the movement of people, “customs controls are also likely to lead to checks on people given the UK Border Force engages both customs and immigration functions.”


The disconnect between public discourse and the facts on the grounds is clear. The politically intolerable idea of a hard border exists at the same time as political support for policing of the borders for those who do not fit the idea of what it means to be British or Irish.

Thus, despite the experiences lived by thousands of people every year, DUP MLA Christopher Stalford told researchers:

“From my perspective the one thing I will not tolerate is people getting on the Larne to Cairnryan ferry having to produce their passport. We’re British citizens, we’re citizens of the United Kingdom and we should be treated equally and on that basis that was why, the ideas the stuff that was coming from just before Christmas, the idea of a border up the Irish Sea was just completely unacceptable to be honest.”

When the experiences of Frank, Paul and their families was put to Elwyn Soutter – the then Border and Immigration Agency chief inspector – he said that what happened was “an inevitable by-product” of an operation he deemed a success, adding that police and immigration officials “question everyone, but inevitably EU citizens can quickly satisfy us. It is not terribly surprising to find it is people who are black or of other ethnicities who are detained."

In conflating ethnicity with nationality, Elwyn brought to the fore to a core issue with Operation Gull. He could not imagine that an EU, British or Irish citizen could be black. These enforcement operations will inevitably target race and other characteristics, and thus – whatever the law says – even British or Irish citizens will face unequal treatment if they are from an ethnic minority.

This is likely to become worse after Brexit, for a larger number of people, whatever solution is reached about the border. Yet even a scenario where Brexit is reversed through a second referendum is no solution to this issue. The current operations would still be in place. And indeed, they are being strengthened. The Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill currently passing through Westminster contains provisions that will grant powers to police and other officials to stop, search and detain anyone found within one mile of the North-South border, without the need to show any reasonable suspicion. The bill also explicitly names two train stations (the first stop on the cross border rail service) which are several miles in from the border yet fall under these powers.

It is completely understandable that people in Ireland are weary about what the future will bring to journeys that, for now, many of us take for granted. In addition to trade, travel, and cross-border work, after decades of violent conflict people are rightly anxious about what a ‘hard border’ will mean, and many are determined to resist that. We need to ensure that calls for ‘no borders in Ireland’ extends to everyone we share this island with. Operation Gull targets communities of colour, violates the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, and has no place Ireland. It’s time for Gull to go.

Luke Butterly is an Irish writer living in London. His work focuses on the politics of immigration in Ireland and Britain.

Filed under: brexit, ireland