SF accuses Bradley of ‘staggering ignorance’ of Belfast Agreement

Northern Secretary appears to suggest Irish citizens in North could not vote in Border poll

Northern Secretary Karen Bradley. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Northern Secretary Karen Bradley. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

 

Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill has criticised the Northern Secretary Karen Bradley for appearing to suggest that Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland would not be entitled to vote in any future referendum on Irish unity.

Ms O’Neill accused Ms Bradley of a “staggering ignorance” of the Belfast Agreement following a British parliamentary reply she gave to Labour MP Conor McGinn, who is a native of south Armagh.

Mr McGinn asked Ms Bradley in a written question in March “for what reason the reciprocal voting rights of Irish citizens do not cover referendums” and what were the consequent implications for Irish citizens based in the North voting in any future Border poll.

In her written reply Ms Bradley said British and Irish citizens would continue to enjoy reciprocal voting rights. She said, however, that British citizens living in the Republic may vote in “local and parliamentary elections in Ireland but not presidential elections or referendums”.

“This reciprocal right is reflected in the voting rights of Irish citizens living in the United Kingdom, ” she added.

This reference to reciprocity appeared to suggest that Irish citizens resident in the North therefore could not vote in a Border poll referendum, or in other referendums in Northern Ireland.

This prompted confusion, considering that such Irish citizens voted in the 2016 Brexit referendum and in the 1998 Belfast Agreement referendum.

It also led to Ms O’Neill to state on Friday that “for Karen Bradley to suggest that Irish citizens would not be entitled to vote in a unity referendum is patently ridiculous”.

“It also completely ignores the fact that thousands of Irish citizens voted in the European referendum in 2016. Is she now saying that they did so illegally?” she added.

“Her comments may be laughable but they are also typical of a wider disdain within her government for the Good Friday agreement and the protections contained within it.”

‘Unique rights’

A UK government spokesman said who could vote in referendums or other polls would be based on legislation relevant to each particular poll.

“The rules surrounding any referendum are set in legislation specific to that poll, as happened in 2016 (for the Brexit referendum),” he said.

“Any decisions on a Border poll would be made in line with the Belfast Agreement,” he added.

Human rights campaigners have criticised Ms Bradley’s response.

Emma DeSouza, the Co Derry woman embroiled in a protracted appeals process over UK residency for her US-born husband, said the secretary of state’s statement was “foolish” and showed “a further lack of understanding about the rights unique to Northern Ireland’s citizens”.

Ms Bradley’s answer did not take into account the rights of Northern Ireland-born Irish citizens to be considered Irish at birth under the Belfast Agreement and showed the UK government’s “complete disregard” for it.

Rick Wilford, professor emeritus of politics from Queen’s University Belfast, said that although Ms Bradley said British citizens living in the Republic could not vote in referendums there, he believed they could vote in such polls, and that this also would apply to any unity referendum.

This would be the case under the Belfast Agreement, he said, “because it is a bilateral international agreement affecting two jurisdictions”.

Same-day polls

Under reciprocal arrangements Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland also could vote in such polls, including any unity poll. He said that under the Belfast Agreement, a Border referendum must take place on the same day North and South.

“I could not envisage the Northern Ireland Office saying British citizens resident in the South would be ineligible [to vote] and ditto I could not see her saying that Irish citizens resident in the North would be ineligible to vote. That is my clear understanding,” he said.

“If they are resident in either jurisdiction they are going to be on the electoral rolls anyway,” said Prof Wilford.

He added that the electoral commissions in the UK and the Republic would be involved in the rules of drawing up the rules for any Border poll. “There would have to be convergence between the two jurisdictions,” he said.