By Colin Gannon
The UK government needs to provide “urgent transparency” into its promised review into the post-Brexit rights of Irish citizens who were born in Northern Ireland, human rights groups have said.
The government has said it is not carrying out a “formal review” into matters, even amid pressure from human rights groups and politicians for transparency on what critics argue is the Home Office working against the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
Leading lawyers, Northern Ireland politicians and human rights activists say Home Office changes undermine the rights of Northern Ireland-born Irish citizens under the 1998 peace accord.
In February, Prime Minister Theresa May said she had instructed the Home Office, “working closely with the Secretary of Northern Ireland”, to “urgently” look into how Brexit is affecting Irish citizens’ rights in Northern Ireland.
The Irish World has been reporting on the case of Emma de Souza, currently embroiled in a lengthy legal battle with the Home Office which insists that she — and others who do not want their details made public — cannot identify as exclusively Irish.
This legal argument, critics contend, contravenes the Good Friday Agreement which says the people of Northern Ireland can be British or Irish or both.
The Home Office and the Office of the Secretary of Northern Ireland have repeatedly refused to clarify the nature of their proposed review into possible Good Friday Agreement violations. “The review is underway,” a Home Office spokesman told the Irish World in February. They added that the department will not be providing a “running commentary” on the matter.
Colin Harvey, a human rights professor at Queen’s University in Belfast, said that the process needs “urgent transparency” and said the lack of formality is “very disappointing”.
“The response provides further evidence of a general failure to appreciate the depth of the current crisis. So, the Prime Minister’s promise from February must now be viewed in a new light,” he said.
“There has to be real doubt whether the required changes will in fact be made. However, even an ‘informal review’ will have its own parameters, so we need more information about what precisely is happening.”
The government’s immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, said in response to a parliamentary question raised by a Scottish National Party MP last week: “The Prime Minister asked the Home Secretary to work with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to review the issues, not to conduct a formal review. This work is ongoing, and as the Prime Minister has said, a solution which complies with the Belfast Agreement will be set out as soon as possible.”
Just last week, lawyers told the Irish World that immigration officials have been allowed disproportionate influence on an otherwise “easily resolved” matter.
Last month the Home Office quietly changed a rule which appears to relegate Irish citizens in Northern Ireland into a distinct, lesser category, insisting that they are legally British by default.
In the quietly released memo detailing amendments to immigration rules published last month, the Home Office stated that dual British nationals will no longer be considered European Economic Area nationals in the UK.
Simon Cox, a migration lawyer for the Open Society Justice Initiative, told the Irish World that the change makes Irish citizens born in Northern Ireland “worse off” than Irish citizens born in Ireland under the same circumstances.
Ireland’s Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee said last week, in response to concerns raised by Sinn Fein senator Niall Ó Donnghaile, that the British government needs to assure people in Northern Ireland that their Irish and EU citizenship rights are protected, regardless of a hard or soft Brexit.
The minister told the Seanad the Irish government was “actively seeking” the outcome of the review promised by Theresa May in February on the status of Irish citizens in the North.
“In any scenario, the Government will also continue to engage with the UK government to ensure that the important citizenship and identity provisions of the Good Friday Agreement are upheld in all relevant policy areas,” she said.
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