Hundreds of people in Northern Ireland gave up their British citizenship in the past decade in a bid to ensure they could bring their foreign-born spouses or partners to live with them.
The citizenship renunciation was spurred by changes made in 2012 by the Home Office to the United Kingdom’s immigration rules, according to figures obtained by the Belfast-based investigate website, The Detail.
From 2012, people in Northern Ireland seeking residency permits for a foreign spouse were separated in two: those who were British or British-Irish had to apply under the UK’s rules; while those who were Irish-only could apply under EU regulations.
Some applicants renounced their British citizenship because the UK system was much stricter than the EU rules, especially as the Home Office judges that all people in the North are automatically British, even without a British passport.
The rules “openly encouraged renunciation of British citizenship” forcing people “into a brutal choice” between citizenship and family unity, said Úna Boyd, of the Belfast-based Committee of the Administration of Justice.
People in Northern Ireland can, like those elsewhere in the UK, bring their family members to join them under UK immigration rules, but many fail to earn more than the required £18,600 a year (€21,530).
The rules have a disproportionate effect on different regions of the UK, with only 27 per cent of people in London unable to meet that income threshold, compared with almost 50 per cent in Northern Ireland.
Sarah Henry, an immigration lawyer in Newry, said some clients who wanted to apply for visas for foreign-born spouses were unable to meet the UK income limits. Some people moved countries, or separated, she said.
“A lot of people would have said if we renounce our British citizenship, what happens in the future? Will it impact our children? It’s that level of uncertainty that worries people,” she said.
Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has previously said the UK's approach to family migration law could "create incentives'' for people from Northern Ireland to renounce their British citizenship.
Just five or fewer applications occurred in 2010-2012, but the number grew to 80 applications a year by the end of the decade. In 2013-2019, more than 430 people renounced British citizenship.
In 2015, Derry native Emma DeSouza applied for a residence card for her US-born husband as an Irish citizen. The Home Office told her to reapply identifying as British or else renounce UK citizenship and reapply as Irish.
Following a legal challenge by her, the British government in 2020 said that everyone living in Northern Ireland – whether holding British, Irish or both citizenship – would be treated equally when applying under the British government’s EU Settlement Scheme.
Those changes were introduced last August, under pledges made in the New Decade New Approach agreement: “No British citizen should feel that they need to choose to renounce their British citizenship,” they said.
Anyone who gave up UK citizenship in a bid to be united with family can seek to resume it under the British Nationality Act, but there are “complex and costly” barriers, legal experts say.
Applications are at the discretion of the Home Secretary, costing more than £1,000 before legal fees: “A free and accessible route back to British citizenship for those who were unfairly forced to renounce under the old policy is needed,” said Ms Boyd of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ).
Claire Hanna, MP of the SDLP, who sits on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster, said people who were "pushed" into renouncing UK citizenship "may rightly feel aggrieved".
“People who want to claim their birthright entitlement to choose British citizenship in addition to their Irish citizenship should not face prohibitive cost or procedure and it must certainly not be at the Home Secretary’s discretion.”
However, Les Allamby, chief commissioner at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, said a durable solution to family reunion issues remained necessary because the current solution was "a short-term, quick fix".