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Northern Ireland rights promises ‘must be legislated’

A rally which took place outside the Northern Ireland Office in London recently in support of the Emma de Souza campaign (Picture: Twitter)

Recent commitments made to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland guaranteeing full access to EU benefits must be signed into legislation, human rights groups and campaigners have said.

This comes as leading lawyers, Northern Ireland politicians and human rights campaigners continue to argue that a recent Home Office rule change undermines the rights of Northern Ireland-born Irish citizens under the Good Friday Agreement.

The change, they say, renders Irish citizens born in Northern Ireland — who have the right under the 1998 peace accord to identify as Irish, British or both — British by default.

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 cannot identify as exclusively Irish.

Irish families seeking EU residency cards for non-European Economic Area members are ensnared in legal battles with the Home Office as the department argues that dual citizenship — the fact they are British citizens identifying also as Irish citizens — disqualifies them from the application process.

Emma De Souza and her husband Jake

Prime Minister Theresa May said last February that she had instructed the Home Office to “urgently” look into how Brexit is affecting Irish citizens’ rights in Northern Ireland.

Human rights groups continue to call for the UK government to provide “urgent transparency” into this promised review. No updates or clarifications on the nature of the review have been provided thus far.

EU citizens

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Tanaiste, pledged last week that Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland will continue to be EU citizens in “all circumstances”.

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”.

He told the Dail that, if necessitated by the fallout of Brexit, the Irish government would be willing to cover the cost of European Health Insurance Cards for citizens living in Northern Ireland after Brexit.

SImon Coveney, Tánaiste, in the Dáil

Mr Coveney maintained that the Good Friday Agreement was explicit in giving people born in Northern Ireland the right to self-identify.

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Daniel Holder, deputy director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), a human rights NGO, welcomed Coveney’s commitments.

However, such statements “really need to be turned into and secured as legally binding arrangements to make it a reality,” he warned.

“At the same time we are acutely concerned the review of the GFA citizenship cases has no time frame, no terms of reference, is just ‘informal’, and is being led by the Home Office given their recent history of contempt for the GFA, and urge the Irish government – as co-guarantor of the GFA – to continue to keep up pressure on the UK to comply with the GFA citizenship provisions.”

Unionist politicians have also, for the first time, spoke publicly on the case of Emma de Souza.

Jim Allister, the leader of Traditional Unionist Voice, told the Newsletter newspaper in Belfast that DeSouza’s campaign is “wholly bogus” and said people born in Northern Ireland “are already UK citizens”.

European Union Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (left) arrives with DUP leader Arlene Foster, right, and DUP European Parliament member Diane Dodds

Diane Dodds, an MEP for the Democratic Unionist Party, claimed that Irish citizenship is “in addition” to British citizenship and that this view is “consistent with the principle of consent”.

The DUP never supported the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to decades of sectarian bloodshed and violence which claimed over 3,500 lives.

Legal right

Ronan McCrea, a professor of Constitutional and European Law at University College London, told the Irish World the wording of the 1998 Agreement’s birthright provisions – specifically the use of the word ‘or’ in British, Irish or both – “strongly suggests” that those born in Northern Ireland have the legal right to not be recognised British by default.

“It does appear that policy automatically treating all Northern Irish people as being British citizens goes against the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.

De Souza claimed that such criticisms of her case are born out of “a very creative interpretation of the Good Friday Agreement”.

“Northern Ireland-born Irish citizens are being advised both by the Home Office and now by unionists politicians that in order to be accepted as Irish – not British – we must go through the process of renunciation of British citizenship, which in itself is a declaration,” she said. “This is quite clearly against parity of esteem and the principle of consent.”

Coveney added last week in the Dail that the Good Friday Agreement was agreed at a time when both British and Irish citizenship “also entailed EU citizenship” and that people in Northern Ireland should “not be required to renounce Irish or British citizenship”.

Coveney said that his government was “actively” awaiting the outcome of the UK government’s review.

By Colin Gannon

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