‘Special status’ of Irish in UK ‘not protected’ from Brexit repeals

By Adam Shaw

Irish citizens coming to Britain could lose their ‘special status’ in the UK once the country starts to implement Brexit, according to a leading legal researcher.

Irish passport holders currently have certain assumed rights in Britain, since Ireland is essentially not considered to be a foreign country in terms of immigration. This means they have extra privileges compared to other EU citizens, such as the right to vote or to stand for public office in the UK.

However, an academic at the University of Leicester believes this could be called into question due to the inevitable overhaul of legislation following the referendum on EU membership.

“It’s assumed that when Irish people come to the UK, they have this ‘special status’ but it’s not rooted in legislation or at least not based strongly enough in legislation,” said Professor Bernard Ryan. “Things are likely to change for EU citizens coming to the UK after Brexit but there needs to be a separate discussion with regards to the Irish.

“It is something which needs to be sorted out because we can’t rely on what is already there.”

Neither citizens nor aliens

It is thought that this enhanced relationship between the Irish and Britain stems from the 1949 Ireland Act, a statute which officially ended the country’s position as a British dominion. However, the Irish were given the special position of being neither citizens nor aliens and, as a result, those living in Britain were given the same rights as British citizens.

The Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 meant that citizens of the Commonwealth, who had previously had extensive rights to migrate to the UK, were now subject to immigration controls. This law extended to Irish citizens but in their case, while there were rights relating to the deportation of undesirables, passport controls were never put into practice due to common travel area legislation.

It meant that there was no legal requirement to show passports when crossing the British-Irish borders – rules which still apply.

Professor Ryan, however, argues that things will need to be clarified since the current practice is unlikely to be protected as proceedings move forward.

“It’s the situation we are in now but it can’t really stay this way with the Brexit movements,” he explained. “There’s always been a bit of a fudge on this issue because the British government and the Civil Service have been reluctant to be totally open about it.”

He suggested that the minimum needed would be a political statement on immigration and the future rights of Irish citizens.

He added: “In reality, something has to be written into immigration legislation going forward.

“In an ideal world it would be an international agreement and it would be reciprocated for British people coming to the Republic.”

Professor Ryan, who specialises in Migration Law, admitted that the issue would not be placed at the top of the Brexit priority list. He said he didn’t want to worry people unnecessarily, but he believes that it is something which needs to be reviewed and examined as proceedings advance. Any fears relating to the position of EU nationals once the UK leaves the Union have picked up pace in recent months, with the government accused of a lack of direction.

Professor Alan Vaughan Lowe QC, who specialises in international public law, said: “There is very little evidence of people knowing what they are trying to do.”

And a campaign intended to pressurise Prime Minister Theresa May into guarantee the rights of EU nationals living in the UK after Brexit has been gaining support.

The ‘Write to Remain’ campaign wants Mrs May to make an unequivocal commitment to these citizens, rather than use them as bargaining chips. The PM has previously explained that she would like to give assurance to EU nationals in Britain but only if it is reciprocated by other countries.

It is a position that has been echoed by International Trade Secretary Liam Fox – a proponent of a ‘hard Brexit’ – who referred to the status of immigrants as “one of our main cards”.

Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron has leant his support to foreigners in the UK and vehemently disagreed with Mr Fox.

He said: “People who have made their home here, paid taxes and contributed to our society must be able to stay – no ifs and no buts.

“These are people’s neighbours, colleagues and spouses, they must not be treated as political bargaining chips.”

But Professor Vaughan Lowe, addressing a House of Lords panel in September, said that it was inconceivable that the laws would survive entirely intact.


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