UK and Ireland clash over new identity cards

A diplomatic row was brewing between London and Dublin last night over Britain's plans for identity cards.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has set out a timetable towards the introduction of hi-tech passports and driving licences that will double as ID cards. Initially, they will be issued voluntarily to British residents but all foreign nationals living in the UK would be required to obtain a card.

That has set alarm bells ringing in the Irish Republic. There are fears the move could spell the end of the Ireland Act of 1949, which entitles the one million Irish people living in Britain to freedom of movement and most of the same rights as UK citizens. Likewise, British citizens have freedom to travel to Ireland without a passport.

Mr Blunkett's announcement could mean that Irish people would have to apply for a British identity card.

It has also left a question mark over the status of people who are living in Northern Ireland. Under the Good Friday Agreement, they are entitled to describe themselves as Irish citizens.

Neither Britain nor Ireland is a member of the European Union's Schengen Agreement, which allows EU citizens to move freely without having to show passports at the Union's internal frontiers.

Traditionally, both nations have argued in Brussels that they need to maintain passport checks on other EU citizens because, unlike most of continental Europe, they do not use ID cards to keep a check on the movement of people.

Britain says that negotiations have begun with Dublin over the issues raised by the plan to introduce identity cards. But Michael McDowell, the Irish Minister for Justice, denies that Dublin has ever been contacted by Britain on the subject. He also made clear he did not share Mr Blunkett's preference for the cards to become compulsory.

He said: "By implication, it confers on police the right to stop anyone and ask them who they are."

A spokesman for Liberty, a civil rights organisation based in London, said: "The Irish Government is known to be lukewarm about identity cards. We very much hope it stands up to any pressure from David Blunkett."

A Home Office spokeswoman conceded last night that talks had not yet begun with Dublin. "We will be developing a strategy for talking to the Irish," the spokeswoman said.

She said all the implications for Dublin of the British Government's scheme would be put high on the agenda for any future discussions.