Irish citizens need legal guarantees of Brexit promises
Opinion: Report finds ‘special status’ of Irish is not enshrined in law
Yvonne McNamara: ‘Unless action is taken, all Irish citizens in the UK face uncertainty and could find themselves being denied employment or access to healthcare.’
Brexit has dominated news cycles for the past 18 months, with almost every angle analysed, discussed and debated. Yet, little of the narrative has focussed on the rights of Irish citizens in the UK, including Irish Travellers.
With this in mind, the Traveller Movement commissioned a legal analysis of the implications Brexit could have on Irish citizens, and Irish Travellers with Irish citizenship, carried out by migration barrister Simon Cox, who sits on our Equality and Social Justice Unit expert panel to challenge discrimination experienced by Travellers.
The report, published today, has found that many of the rights currently enjoyed by Irish citizens in the UK, such as exemptions from deportation and restrictions on employment for “foreigners”, exist only because they are EU citizens and not because they are Irish citizens.
The British government has failed to identify a single law where the Ireland Act 1949 operates to confer rights on Irish citizens in the UK. This is very concerning.
It is always the most vulnerable in society and those with the least agency that are at greatest risk if protections are not put in place to guarantee their rights.
In uncertain times, it is not enough to rely on warm words and promises from the British government
The Irish Traveller community have long suffered prejudice and discrimination in Britain. In September the Traveller Movement published research, ‘Last acceptable form of racism’, which found that 91 per cent of Gypsies and Travellers have experienced discrimination because of their ethnicity.
More than that, we found that service providers - including frontline health services - routinely refuse access to Irish Travellers. Irish Travellers are also very unlikely to access justice; 77 per cent do not seek legal help if they experience discrimination.
In a post-Brexit UK, with rights of citizens unclear, it is reasonable to assume that this discrimination could become even more prevalent. Officials in the public and private sector would be left with prejudice to discriminate - be it consciously or unconsciously - against Irish Travellers who hold Irish citizenship.
But what our paper found was that it is not just the most vulnerable Irish citizens whose rights are at risk because of Brexit; unless action is taken, all Irish citizens in the UK face uncertainty and could find themselves being denied employment or access to healthcare.
In uncertain times, it is not enough to rely on warm words and promises from the British government. If it is determined to maintain the “special status” of Irish citizens as we have heard, then they need to take action and create clear legal measures that enshrine these rights in law.
To put it in simple terms, when laws are unclear or complex it can lead to confusion, and laws can therefore be misunderstood or misapplied by employers and landlords. In this scenario, it is families and individuals who suffer the most.
Take the reforms that arose out of the British government’s plans to create a “hostile environment” for illegal migrants. Banks, employers and landlords are now required to carry out immigration checks. Various reports have found that landlords, as an example, are less likely to rent to non-British people simply because they do not hold a British passport.
As it stands, can we safely say that Irish citizens will be protected from such measures? The answer from our report is a simple no.
Our report spells out the problems and risks to Irish citizens and Irish Travellers very clearly. Importantly, it also provides solutions. The British government should act and set out legal guarantees of its promises to Irish citizens.
As Lord David Alton of Liverpool writes in the foreword of the report, we hope this “serves as the wake-up call that both the British and Irish governments need”.
Yvonne MacNamara is chief executive of the Traveller Movement. travellermovement.org.uk