Wednesday 17 July 2019

Warning Brexit will make Irish passport holders in the North 'second class citizens'

Irish passport (Brian Lawless/PA)
Irish passport (Brian Lawless/PA)

Shane Phelan Legal Affairs Editor

Irish citizens in Northern Ireland could become “second class citizens” post-Brexit, a Belfast-based human rights organisation has warned.

Brian Gormally, director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, outlined three potential outcomes Irish citizens in the North face in maintaining their rights to live, work, access health and social services and fully participate in social and political life.

None of the options is appealing, he told the Oireachtas Justice Committee today.

“They all involve the implication that those who chose Irish identity are in some way second class citizens,” he said.

“The first possibility is that the Home Office will regard Irish citizens as really British since UK nationality law decrees that most of those born in the UK have British citizenship,” he said.

A second possibility is that the issue would be resolved under an agreement on the Common Travel Area (CTA).

But he pointed out there were concerns that the formal legal underpinnings of the CTA were “built on sand”.

“The third possibility is that under the withdrawal agreement, EU citizens living in the UK can retain many of their current rights by applying for settled status,” he said.

This would involve an application to the Home Office.

“Their rights as full participants in Northern Ireland life would depend on either a denial of their Irish nationality, as yet unknown bilateral agreements between the UK and Ireland about the CTA, or asking the Home Office to graciously allow them leave to live in the land of their birth,” he said.

Mr Gormally said events since the Brexit vote two and a half years ago had already damaged the peace process and relations across this island.

“We presently have no devolved institutions in Northern Ireland and the two major political parties are on opposite sides of an increasingly fractious debate,” he said.

“In the coming years there will be further dislocation and disagreement whatever happens with Brexit as the constitutional status of Northern Ireland again comes to the fore with a probably border poll.”

Mr Gormally told TDs and senators the citizenship issue was an example of how basic assumptions of the Good Friday agreement have been undermined.

At the same hearing, Queens University Belfast law professor Brian Harvey said there was a need for certainty on the rights of Irish citizens living in the North and referred to the example of the Windrush scandal, where British subjects originally from Caribbean countries were wrongly detained, deported or threatened with deportation, and denied their rights.

“Irish citizens in the North need to know that in 20 years time they are not going to end up in a Windrush-type scenario in a Northern context,” he said.

Emily Logan, chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, told the committee it believed EU citizenship should be extended to all citizens of Northern Ireland post-Brexit.

She said any form of potentially unequal citizenship runs counter to the principals of the Good Friday Agreement and that clarity is needed on how rights and entitlements will be accessed in practice.

Ms Logan also said the formal legal underpinnings of the CTA were “scant” and needed to be solidified in law.

Last week Tánaiste Simon Coveney said a new bilateral arrangement between the UK and Ireland to protect the CTA was ready in the event of Brexit going ahead. However, the agreement has yet to be published.

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