Northern Ireland human rights group meets EU task force
UK attorney general and Brexit secretary return to London after ‘difficult’ discussions with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier
British prime minister Theresa May is due to face a “meaningful vote” on Brexit early next week. Its fate is said to hinge on whether the UK attorney general can revise his legal assessment of the backstop
Northern Ireland residents who wish to assert their Irish nationality and EU citizenship rights after Brexit are inadequately protected by the withdrawal agreement, a delegation from Northern Ireland has told the EU Brexit task force.
The Northern Ireland human rights group which met the task force on Wednesday included Belfast-based lawyers Prof Colin Harvey of Queen’s University Belfast, Daniel Holder of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, and solicitor Niall Murphy. They were joined by Derry-born Emma DeSouza who has been involved in so-far-successful litigation with the British Home Office over her right to exercise an EU right to bring her US husband to live with her.
The discussions focused on assurances being sought by London that the backstop – intended to prevent a hard border in Ireland – would not be permanent.
A European Commission spokesman said Mr Barnier told the commission meeting on Wednesday that “no solution had been identified at this point that is consistent with the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland which will not be reopened”.
Sources said the two sides did not even manage to exchange suggested texts, and the British team is expected to return on Friday following further technical level discussions.
British prime minister Theresa May is due to face a “meaningful vote” early next week. Its fate is said to hinge on whether Mr Cox can revise his legal assessment of the backstop exit mechanism.
“These are very sensitive discussions,” said Mr Cox as he left. “We are into the meat of the matter now. We have put forward some proposals, very reasonable proposals. We are now into the detail of the discussion.”
The Northern Ireland delegation’s submission included reference to Ms DeSouza’s case, and specifically the requirement on her to renounce her UK citizenship in order to claim her EU rights.
The delegation also said many Northern Ireland residents would be affected by a Home Office ruling that Irish citizens in the North would not be allowed to apply to register for the post-Brexit EU settlement scheme. Under its provisions EU migrants in the UK after Brexit will have their right to reside underpinned and will also retain their EU rights.
Home Office minister Caroline Nokes told the House of Commons on February 26th that “British citizens, including those with dual British/Irish or British/EU citizenship, are not eligible to apply for the EU settlement scheme. This is because, under Section 1(1) of the Immigration Act 1971, those with a right of abode in the UK (including all British citizens) cannot be granted immigration status.”
The Northern Ireland group argues that the ruling is in breach of the commitment to allowing equal respect to those claiming Irish citizenship under both the Belfast Agreement and the proposed withdrawal agreement. It would create a distinct class of citizens in the North with less rights than others, and forces those who wish to continue exercising their EU rights after Brexit formally to resign their UK citizenship.
This is a lengthy and costly process, Ms DeSouza says, involving first an assertion and proof of UK citizenship, something that is anathema for many nationalists. Applicants must then pay a charge of over £437, and may not leave the state for six months until their status is changed.
The delegation also raised the issue of the right of Northern Ireland-based Irish citizens to vote in the coming European elections, and were told that this was a matter entirely for the Irish Government.