After Brexit, what is the backstop on the rights of Irish citizens in the north?

Posted By: June 09, 2018

Brian Feeney.Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, June 6, 2018

This week’s meetings reflect the EU 27’s increasing impatience with the British government’s internecine warfare about customs arrangements.

At the weekend Simon Coveney conveyed the latest timetable from Brussels requiring the UK to produce some workable proposal in writing within a fortnight so that the EU 27 can examine it in time for their European Council meeting on June 28-29. So far the only stuff that has emerged is the muddle of Brexiteer ignorance and fantasy you hear DUP geniuses retailing on local airwaves.

However, that’s all about customs, trade, services and such like. That’s the Brexiteer obsession, trading as the ‘EmpahMk.II’ instead of as part of a bloc. There are other very important aspects which have yet to be resolved but receive virtually no attention at all. One which affects everyone in the north is their rights as EU citizens after Brexit.

 You’ve read about that here before but just to remind you, here’s what the Irish protocol in the Draft Withdrawal Treaty says. ‘Recognising that Irish citizens in Northern Ireland by virtue of their Union citizenship, will continue to enjoy, and have access to rights, opportunities, and benefits, and that this Protocol should respect and be without prejudice to the rights, opportunities, and identity that come with citizenship of the Union for the people of Northern Ireland who choose to assert their right to Irish citizenship as defined in Annexe 2 of the British-Irish Agreement.’ Clear enough isn’t it? In the draft, this clause is colored yellow which means the British have agreed on it as a policy objective.

 There’s a problem though. The British have done precisely nothing about producing a mechanism for accessing those rights. Worse, they say they’re repudiating the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice so how do you enforce any of those rights?

 Now you might say, well that’s all pretty lofty stuff that’s never going to affect me. Well, you’d be wrong. Take your EHIC card, formerly E111. Suppose summer 2019 you slip and fall in Fuengirola and break your arm. In a hospital in Malaga, you produce your EHIC card for free treatment as an EU citizen. Hard luck. Do you think the Irish government is going to pay for Nordies in hospitals all over Europe? No chance. Try applying to the Irish government for an EHIC card next year. You’ll be turned down because you’re not resident in the EU country called Ireland.

 Of course, it’s much simpler if you have a British passport. You’ll be turned down in Malaga straight away because you’re not an EU citizen. But you’d know that already because you’d have been queuing for ages at the ‘Other Passports’ Arrivals gate at the airport.

 Maybe these provisions won’t apply until after the transition period ends in December 2020? Do you know? Does anyone? The only certainty is that David Davis doesn’t know since he has yet to provide evidence that he knows anything about Brexit.

What is the Irish government doing about any of this? We’re told the EU27 are in negotiations with the UK about Irish citizens accessing rights in the north. We’re told the British are ‘very hostile’ about the matter even though they’ve agreed on it as a policy objective. That’s about it. It was raised at a conference on Brexit that Martina Anderson MEP ran a couple of months ago in Derry, but the answer came there none.

Irish government officials have been racking their brains about the famous ‘backstop’ for customs, and regulatory alignment north-south and the British have been unable to square that circle, nor are they likely to be able to manage it. The EU27 is standing firmly behind the Republic on that.

 Here’s the question. Where or what is the backstop on the rights of Irish citizens in the north which are explicitly guaranteed in the Draft Withdrawal Treaty protocol as above? All we know is that the EU Commission has been clear that EU rights don’t apply to you in the north unless you have ‘asserted’ your right to Irish citizenship and hold an Irish passport.

 Right. Brilliant. Now, what mechanism is there to access or exercise any of those rights especially when you need a state to pay for them?