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Rights of Irish in UK and Northern Ireland at risk, TDs warned

Houses of the Oireachtas, Dublin

Colin Gannon

The Irish and British governments need to provide “clarification” on the rights of Irish citizens in the UK to ensure they do not become second-class citizens, an Oireachtas committee on human rights has heard.

The lack of meaningful legal footing with the Common Travel Area endangers the rights of the Irish living in Britain, according to human rights experts.

The committee heard that the Common Travel Area, the century-old agreement which ensures reciprocal social and movement rights for Irish citizens living in the UK and vice versa, is also as “legally flimsy” as the Good Friday Agreement.

Concerns were raised about the effect of Brexit on human rights and equality by a joint committee of North-South bodies set up under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland-based human rights experts when they appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality last week.

People in Northern Ireland who assert Irish citizenship could become “second-class citizens” post-Brexit, it was claimed.

The committee was told that legislation was required in both the UK and Ireland to recognise “the particular status” of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland.

The weaknesses and vulnerabilities have been highlighted by the Home Office’s continued refusal to recognise the right of Emma de Souza, from Northern Ireland, to be an Irish citizen despite explicit commitments in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that all people in Northern Ireland may identify as Irish, British, or both.

Emma De Souza and her husband Jake

Brian Gormally, director of Northern Irish human rights group Committee on the Administration of Justice, said Irish citizens born in Northern Ireland would, after the UK leaves the EU, be EU citizens living in a non-member state and Brexit would make their status “constitutionally and practically insecure.”

“At the moment, we still do not know if Brexit will actually happen or, if it does, in what particular way,” he said.

“However, the events of the past two and a half years have already damaged the peace settlement 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.”

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Colin Harvey, a Professor in Human Rights in Queens University Belfast, told the Irish World recently that the de Souza case highlights how many aspects of the Good Friday Agreement have yet to be “fully” and “effectively” implemented in domestic law, adding that these are future “Windrush-type cases”.

Prof Harvey called this lapse in the formalisation of the provisions laid out in the Good Friday Agreement as an “implementation gap” and added that it is near-identical to the Common Travel Area in its lack of meaningful legal protections for Irish citizens.

Speaking this week, Prof Harvey said that there is currently a “crisis of rights and equality” in Northern Ireland and that Brexit is playing a big role in worsening uncertainty.

Prof Harvey also said that there is a need for “urgent and pressing clarification” for the “position and rights” of Irish citizens in the UK and in Northern Ireland going forward.

Professor Colin Harvey and Brian Gormally presenting evidence to the Oireachtas committee on Human Rights and Justice last week

“I think the Irish government need to stand for up for the rights of Irish citizens and to advance them. They need to do some work on equality and voting rights, for example. They need to stand firm on the rights of Irish citizens in the North and in Britain,” he said.

It is futile providing assurances unless they are “enforceable” and implemented in practice, he added.

Emma de Souza, who is awaiting a hearing with the UK’s upper tribunal regarding her ability to identify exclusively as an Irish citizen after a lengthy legal fight with the Home Office, said that that hearing painted a “bleak picture” of human rights in a post-Brexit environment.

“We are facing a constitutional crisis that touches on many aspects of society such as language rights and equality of treatment,” she said.

“The committee hearing was a window into a crisis that Brexit will expedite. The Irish government, as co-guarantors of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, have a responsibility to bring forward and push for changes that will protect the people of Northern Ireland. There is no more time for complacency.”

Full participation in life in Northern Ireland may, according to Mr Gormally, may depend on either a “denial of their Irish nationality”; “yet unknown bilateral agreements between UK and Ireland about the Common Travel Area”; or asking the Home Office to “graciously allow them leave to live in the land of their birth”.

“The reality is that Irish citizens, born and living in Northern Ireland, have no legal connection to the jurisdiction in which they were born,” he added.

Mr Gormally also told the hearing that Brexit had already “damaged” and “destabilised” the peace settlement and relations across the island.

Committee member Clare Daly, an Independents 4 Change TD, told the hearing that the findings were “shocking and sobering”.

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