The Home Office and the Office of the Secretary of Northern Ireland have refused to clarify the nature of their proposed review into possible Good Friday Agreement violations.
Last week, Prime Minister Theresa May said she 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.
Since last November, the Irish World has been reporting on the case of Emma de Souza, currently embroiled in a lengthy legal battle with the Home Office as they argue that she – and others who have yet to go public – cannot exclusively identify as Irish, seemingly contravening birthright provisions resulting from the Good Friday Agreement.
Some human rights experts have also pointed out how Irish citizens born in Northern Ireland who wish to apply for the EU Settled Status scheme to safeguard their citizenship rights post-Brexit – fearing that the Common Travel Area does not sufficiently protect them – are being warned that they cannot apply since they are effectively dual citizens born as British.
Until last week, in the prime minister’s speech addressing Northern Ireland in Belfast, the British government had not yet made reference to these cases or to how Brexit will affect citizenship rights in Northern Ireland.
“In some cases recently, some people have encountered difficulties in securing their rights as Irish citizens to bring in family members…,” the prime minister said. “So I have asked the Home Secretary – working closely with the Secretary of State [for Northern Ireland] to review this issues urgently to deliver a long-term solution consistent with the letter and spirit of the Belfast Agreement.”
Without making any specific references, Ms May said that she understood “the serious concerns” that the cases of de Souza and others raised.
“The acknowledgement yesterday is long overdue and welcome. It will hopefully prompt immediate action for those affected. It is the result of courageous campaigning by Emma and Jake de Souza and others,” Professor Colin Harvey, a human rights expert in Queen’s University Belfast, said.
“We now need urgent clarity about the nature and scope of this proposed review.
“In my view, it needs to be independent, properly resourced and have credibility. It must address all the issues raised by the failure to acknowledge the birthright provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. Most importantly: Those affected by this, and associated policies, deserve immediate clarity and certainty.”
Prof Harvey added that the issue is inextricably linked to the lack of formalisation with the Common Travel Area – the agreement which guarantees certain reciprocal social and movement rights for Irish citizens in the UK and vice versa – which many legal experts have declared as being “built on sand.”
The legal wrangles under review stem from families from Northern Ireland who are seeking EU residency cards for non-European Economic Area members as the department contends that dual citizenship – the fact they are British citizens proclaiming also to be Irish citizens – disqualifies them from the application process.
In a statement, a Home Office spokesperson repeated to the Irish World what Theresa May had articulated in her Belfast speech and refused to reveal any further details about the review other than, “The review is underway.” They added that the department will not be providing a “running commentary” on the matter.
Emma de Souza, whose case Theresa May referred to, said that although her speech was “welcome news” that “caught [her] off-guard”, the British government needs to provide further clarifications and put forward a “permanent” resolution.
“The questions I’ve been fielding since [the speech], from other citizens in similar situations to myself is, will my court date be cancelled? Do I not have to renounce British citizenship now? Will my spouse be able to stay with now?” Ms de Souza said.
“I don’t have these answers but I will be looking toward Theresa May, the SOC and Home Secretary to answer them. This is a live issue that is affecting people in the here and now.”
Maria Caulfield, the Tory MP who sits on the Northern Ireland Select Affairs Committee, said last month she was “extremely concerned that the Good Friday Agreement is not being upheld” in the de Souza case and said that her committee may need to scrutinise the growing concerns.
It also emerged last week that the Home Office intends to reject applications from Irish citizens born in Northern Ireland for the settled status scheme.
According to Home Office Minister Caroline Nokes, in response to a parliamentary question from Labour MP John Grogan, Northern Ireland-born people “should be treated as British” and this means that no Irish citizen born in NI could benefit from the retained EU citizens’ rights under the Withdrawal Agreement.
Daniel Holder, Deputy Director of Committee on the Administration of Justice, a human rights group, told the Irish World that the Home Office’s position means Irish citizens here “may be among the only EU citizens not to have a mechanism to retain some of their EU rights” after Brexit.
“You have a Home Office Minister implying she will refuse Northern Ireland-born Irish citizens the right to apply to retain EU rights under the settlement scheme on the grounds they are really British,” Mr Holder said.
“This is the same Home Office Minister who notoriously had not read the Good Friday Agreement, and it shows. Her position makes a mockery of the Agreement’s pledge that it is the ‘birth right’ of people born in the North to be accepted as Irish or British (or both).
The prime minister used her symbolic speech in Belfast to claim that her government will find a Brexit solution that “commands broad support across the community in Northern Ireland, and that secures a majority in the Westminster Parliament”.