UK needs to assure people in NI their Irish and EU rights are protected

“Government ‘actively seeking’ outcome of UK review promised by Theresa May

Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee said the Government has been ‘actively exploring ways in which we can protect access to EU entitlements for Irish citizens in Northern Ireland wherever possible’ if there is a hard Brexit. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee said the Government has been ‘actively exploring ways in which we can protect access to EU entitlements for Irish citizens in Northern Ireland wherever possible’ if there is a hard Brexit. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The UK needs to assure people in Northern Ireland that their Irish and EU citizenship rights are protected regardless of a hard or soft Brexit, Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee said.

Addressing concerns raised by Northern Ireland-based human rights campaigners this week about new UK immigration rules, the minister told the Seanad the Government was “actively seeking” the outcome of a review promised by British prime minister Theresa May in February on the status of Irish citizens in the North.

Ms McEntee was responding to concerns raised by Sinn Féin senator Niall Ó Donnghaile about the rules that human rights activists say undermines the rights of Northern Ireland-born Irish citizens under the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

The campaigners argue that the rules, highlighted this week by Co Derry immigration activist Emma DeSouza, deny Irish citizens in Northern Ireland the right to apply for EU “settled status” in the UK after Brexit and mean they cannot secure their wider EU rights in a legally enforceable way through the scheme.

The UK changed the definition of a European Economic Area national in the rules last month stipulating that dual British nationals who are British by birth will not be considered an EEA national in the UK.

Northern Ireland people are precluded from the settlement scheme as they are automatically deemed by the UK government to be British by birth and as dual Irish-British citizens cannot have “settled status”.

Birthright

The campaigners say they are being denied their birthright entitlement to be considered Irish under the 1998 agreement underpinning the Northern Irish peace process.

They argue that Brexit has exposed the long-running failure of UK governments to legislate for the protections afforded them as Northern Ireland-born Irish citizens under the agreement.

Ms McEntee told the Seanad on Wednesday that the Government was “fully aware” of the concerns raised by Irish citizens in Northern Ireland given that there is “so much uncertainty that surrounds Brexit”.

“It is important to be clear, however, that these statements in no way change the position that the EU citizenship of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland continues in all circumstances,” Ms McEntee said.

The Government welcomed Mrs May’s review, the Minister said, and noted her remarks that serious concerns had been raised about how UK immigration rules treat citizens exercising their rights to be Irish.

“There is clearly a need for the UK government to provide assurance to everyone in Northern Ireland that the citizenship and the identity – that both of these provisions of the agreement – are being taken fully into account in all policy areas regardless of the UK approach to exiting the European Union,” said the minister.

Ms McEntee said the Government has been “actively exploring ways in which we can protect access to EU entitlements for Irish citizens in Northern Ireland wherever possible” if there is a hard Brexit.

Good Friday Agreement

“In any scenario, the Government will also continue to engage with the UK government to ensure that the important citizenship and identity provisions of the Good Friday Agreement are upheld in all relevant policy areas,” she said.

Ms DeSouza, who is involved in a lengthy appeals process with the UK government over the residency of her US-born husband, raised concerns about the UK’s immigration rules published on March 7th.

She argues that they create two tiers of Irish citizen based on where they were born: Irish citizens in UK who can retain their EU rights through “settled status” and Irish citizens in Northern Ireland who cannot.

A UK Home Office spokesman told The Irish Times that Irish citizens living in the UK do not need to apply to the EU settlement scheme because their rights to live and work in the UK are protected under the Common Travel Area, the arrangements that predate the EU protecting the freedoms of citizens in Ireland and the UK.

Irish citizens who are not also British citizens can, however, apply to the settlement scheme if they so wish, while their non-Irish and non-British family members resident in UK will need to apply for settled status.

The spokesman did not have a direct answer on whether the UK government considers Northern Ireland-born citizens to be Irish at birth, though he said the Home Office respects their right to identify as British, Irish or both under the Good Friday Agreement.

Ms McEntee said that Mrs May, in her comments during a visit to Belfast in early February, affirmed the “birthright” to identify as British, Irish or both and noted that her review was aimed at delivering “a long-term solution consistent with the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement”.

The Home Office spokesman said the review was “ongoing” and that a solution which complies with the agreement “will be set out as soon as possible”.