Human rights groups and citizenship campaigners are urging Theresa May to release the findings of a review she called into alleged Good Friday Agreement infractions by the Home Office.
May, who officially resigned this week, said last February as Prime Minister that she had instructed the Home Office to “urgently” look into how Brexit is affecting Irish citizens’ rights in Northern Ireland.
The worry now, campaigners say, is that the already opaque review may fizzle out along with her premiership, leaving many families left in limbo.
This review was called primarily due to the activism of Irish citizenship rights campaigner Emma de Souza, who remains embroiled in a lengthy legal battle with the Home Office.
The department has repeatedly told de Souza that she cannot identify as exclusively Irish. This position, legal experts say, contravenes the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
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, the government has only offered up the fact that the review is informal.
The Home Office and the Office of the Secretary of Northern Ireland have repeatedly refused to clarify its nature. “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 professor in human rights a Queen’s University Belfast, said that the delay the de Souzas are facing is “appalling and unacceptable” and called her case to be brought before the Home Affairs committee or another “accountability mechanism”.
“There is a very real risk that the serious concerns raised will now not be satisfactorily addressed. We still know little about the promised Home Office review, and what we do know is extremely disappointing,” he said. “It falls far short of what is required.”
Last month, Emma de Souza was left “disappointed” after her long long-delayed court date was postponed. Speaking to the Irish World this week, she said that she is concerned that the review may “go down with” the Prime Minister after she steps away from the Tory leadership.
“It has been a source of deep frustration that the urgent review pledged remains unfulfilled. We have no terms of reference or timeframe,” she said. “Instead we have the continuation of uncertainty and anxiety being felt across our community over how Brexit will impact our rights.”
De Souza applied for a residency document in 2015 for her husband, American citizen Jake de Souza, who intended to live in Northern Ireland as the family member of a European Economic Area national living in the UK.
The Home Office initially refused Mr De Souza’s application for a residence card as, they argued, his wife applied for the visa as an Irish national.
De Souza challenged that decision, with a first-tier tribunal judge ruling in their favour. Ms DeSouza, who refused to apply as a British national, won the case last year but the Home Office continued to appeal.
In response, the UK’s immigration department brought their fight to the Upper Tribunal, the immigration court with equivalent status to the High Court. It has now been postponed for a second time.
“The Home Office is currently in breach of its obligations under the [Good Friday Agreement], an international treaty, and needs to remedy this,” Daniel Holder, Daniel Holder, deputy director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), a human rights NGO, said
“The switch of Prime Minister should not be the latest excuse to put this ‘review’ back further. It’s already summer. This ‘urgent’ process began back in the winter.
“Whilst ultimately the issue should be addressed by bringing British nationality legislation in line with the GFA, as the NI Human Rights Commission has sought, in the interim the Home Office could quickly revert to its pre-2012 policy approach of accepting NI-born Irish citizens who wish to be accepted as solely Irish, as such.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Tanaiste, have pledged that Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland will continue to be EU citizens in “all circumstances”.
Mr Coveney said that his government will ensure “vital citizenship and identity provisions of the Good Friday Agreement are respected and upheld in all relevant policy areas” while Helen McEntee, the minister for Europe, has said the government is awaiting the completion of the review.
By Colin Gannon