Voting rights of EU citizens in NI

 

Sir, – Newton Emerson’s thoughtful article “Rights of Irish citizens in North a thorny post-Brexit problem” (Opinion & Analysis, October 11th) underscores one issue in Brexit which is as fundamentally democratic an issue as the “Border issue”. Indeed, rather than post-Brexit, it needs to be addressed now by the British government and EU officials with the fullest urging of the Irish Government.

As the recent submission by the Belfast-based Committee on the Administration of Justice emphasised to the Review of European Parliament Constituencies, “The provisions on the birth right to Irish and British citizenship in Northern Ireland are enshrined in the UK Ireland Treaty appended to the Good Friday Agreement and hence are recognised by the UK as well as Ireland.”

Furthermore this commitment is also made by both the UK and EU in paragraph 52 of the EU UK phase one agreement of December 2017 that also references the Belfast Agreement on this crucial point, stating that “the people of Northern Ireland who are also Irish citizens will continue to enjoy rights as EU Citizens including where they reside in Northern Ireland”.

Under the Withdrawal Agreement both the UK and EU agreed to respect the rights of those citizens’ “opportunities and identity” that come with European Union citizenship and to give effect to those European rights.

Fundamental to these rights must be the continued right to democratic representation in the European Parliament.

It is essential in the current negotiations between the UK government and the EU that this be dealt with, especially in light of the European Council’s decision of June 24th this year to redistribute all UK EU Parliamentary seats after Brexit, resulting in the loss of all three MEP seats for Northern Ireland. This move, coupled with the fact that the next EU elections are in May 2019, underscores the urgency of a serious focus.

It remains of deep concern to us that despite these guidelines, little progress has been made on this front since the general secretariat of the European Council confirmed to us in a communication of July 16th that “the matter has not been considered by the (European) Council”, despite council president Donald Tusk being aware of it. On that basis, at this crucial hour, it is imperative that the Irish Government plays a more active advocacy role for the preservation of the voting rights of the citizens of Northern Ireland within the language of any Brexit agreement.

Cyprus, even with its divided jurisdiction between the north and south of the island, holds six European MEP seats, and permits Turkish Cypriots to run for, and vote in, elections for those seats, perhaps offering a model for saving Northern Ireland’s three.

Whatever the model that might be reviewed – be it “special status” for Northern Ireland within the EU or the Irish Government allowing all Irish citizens resident on the island to elect MEPs, the issue of protecting the democratic rights as enshrined by the Belfast Agreement, and as recognised by phase one of last December’s agreement between the UK and the EU, must be dealt with.

As important as the Border and trade issues are at this time, the protection of the rights to democratic expression in Europe for the citizens of Northern Ireland must not be neglected. – Yours, etc,

CIARAN WHITE,

Barrister,

Senior Lecturer in Law,

Ulster University;

Dr FRANCIS COSTELLO,

Belfast.