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United Ireland comes with dilemmas for British who don’t want to become Irish

Some voting rights attach to Irish citizenship but new thinking must accommodate many in a new State

NI poll image week two

The governments of Ireland and the UK “recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.”

That is the wording of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

Clearly, in the event of Irish unification, Ireland would be obliged under international law to respect the desire of some northern-born people to identify as British, or as both British and Irish.

The continuation of British citizenship for such northerners, however, would not be entirely in the hands of the Government of Ireland: that would be a matter of UK law and practice.


We would put it this way: the Republic is obliged, by the Belfast Agreement, to respect British identifications among the northern-born, in all scenarios, and to recognise the British citizenship rights of future northerners if the UK does.

But there is a tricky issue in the Republic that has not been widely discussed.

Currently, only Irish citizens can vote for the president, or in constitutional referendums. The situation is different for elections to Dáil Éireann, the European Parliament and local government.

So is a future united Ireland obliged to change its constitution and laws to allow those northern-born who are only British citizens to vote in presidential elections and in referendums on constitutional change?

Accidental citizenship

There is no obstacle to a northern-born British Protestant choosing to be an Irish citizen, and to have the full right to vote thereby in a future united Ireland – so that’s not the issue.

The issue would be the voting rights of those who wish to remain just British citizens, and who don’t want to take any action that might make them Irish citizens by default.

They won’t wish accidentally to become Irish citizens simply because of seeking to vote in a presidential election or constitutional referendum (which might happen, as we understand it, under existing Irish legislation).

Poll Tuesday

Advocates of a united Ireland may therefore opt for one of two feasible ways of accommodating British citizens, born in the North (though there is some difference of opinion among legal experts over whether both options amount to full compliance with the Belfast Agreement):

1. Make eligibility to vote in future referendums and presidential elections dependent on taking out Irish citizenship – which is easy to do; or,

2. Allow British citizens in Northern Ireland to vote in referendums and presidential elections without taking out Irish citizenship (which would require a constitutional amendment).

The first option is less accommodating of British identifiers who do not wish to become Irish citizens under Irish unity.

We asked our respondents whether after unification people born in Northern Ireland (and their descendants) should be able to continue being just British citizens if they wished. Or should they have to take on Irish citizenship (either while being able to keep their British citizenship, or by being compelled to become Irish citizens only)?

According to the Irish Times/ARINS survey, two-thirds of the northern public don’t want to oblige northern-born British citizens to become Irish citizens in a future united Ireland.

Just over one-third of southerners agree with them, so passing the relevant constitutional amendment might be difficult.

Religious differences

Unsurprisingly, responses in the North vary across religious background and national identity.

Catholics there who describe themselves as Irish have the lowest support for the “British only” option (51 per cent), but that number is considerably higher than the 35 per cent in the Republic.

Northern Protestants who identify as British are clearly the most in favour of being entitled to have British only citizenship (84 per cent) in a united Ireland.

“Northern Irish” identifiers, whether Protestant or Catholic, take a middle view.

Respondents who think that British identifiers should take on Irish citizenship favour “dual citizenship” ie, combining Irish citizenship with continued British citizenship.

In the south, almost half take this view.

Just one in 10 southerners demand that British identifiers become Irish citizens only. Just 7 per cent share this hardline view in the North, rising to 15 per cent among northern Catholics.

Looking at party supporters across the island, Fianna Fáil voters are the least in favour of “British only” citizenship, and the most in favour (14 per cent) of Irish-only citizenship.

Eighty and 87 per cent respectively of Democratic Unionist Party and Traditional Unionist Voice voters, not surprisingly, favour the “British only” option.

Our finding that only one-third in the South accept uniquely British citizenship under unification is not a trivial matter.

British identifiers in Northern Ireland may react negatively to a future demand that they become Irish citizens.

The question is connected to the right to partake in collective decision-making: voting on constitutional amendments may deeply affect the rights and interests of northern-born British citizens in a united Ireland.

These questions of citizenship, and their consequences, must be addressed by the Government of Ireland long before any future referendums on unification.

John Garry is professor of political behaviour at Queen’s University Belfast. Brendan O’Leary is Lauder professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania