Brexit deal gives more rights to Irish passport holders, experts say

Posted By: December 18, 2017

Agreement between EU and UK means Northern Ireland born citizens with Irish passports could enjoy benefits closed to British passport holders

Lisa O’Carroll. Brexit correspondent. The Guardian. London. Sunday, December 17, 2017

People born in Northern Ireland who carry Irish passports could have more rights after Brexit than those who carry British passports, legal experts have claimed.

The Irish border deal struck between the EU and the UK last week will allow at least 500,000 out of the 1.8 million population of the region to continue to be treated as EU citizens even though they were born in the UK.

This group, technically foreign passport holders in a UK jurisdiction, will be treated as naturalized but will also have a suite of rights associated with being an EU citizen, including freedom of movement rights to travel, work and settle in another member state.

“The British in Northern Ireland who do not also opt for Irish citizenship would be worse off after Brexit,” said Dagmar Schiek, professor of law at Queen’s University Belfast.

The agreement, which could prompt challenges among other EU citizens in the UK who have fewer rights, has its roots in the conflicts of Ireland’s past.

It in effect locks up and extends the provisions in the Good Friday agreement, which allows anyone born in the region a birthright to identify as Irish, British or both. They can carry either passport or both.

About a quarter of the population identify as Irish, about half as British and another quarter as “Northern Irish”, according to the 2011 census.

The rights of the Irish are being cemented in the deal to ensure they have full legal status in Northern Ireland even if they are deemed foreign EU citizens in a UK jurisdiction post-Brexit.

But it will mean this group of people born in the UK will have extended rights. After Brexit they will be free to travel, work and settle in the rest of the EU under freedom of movement rules, says Schiek.

The Irish government has said it expects those citizens will also be able to apply for the Erasmus university exchange programme, which could be closed to British citizens in the rest of the UK.

The Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, hailed the deal as a great benefit to the Irish. “Irish citizens born in Northern Ireland … will have more rights than someone born in Sheffield or London,” he told RTÉ News the day the deal was struck in Brussels.

The advantages of carrying both passports, whatever the adopted identity, have not been lost in the region. After the EU referendum last year, the Democratic Unionist party MP Ian Paisley Jr advised people in the region to get Irish passports.

“My advice is if you are entitled to a second passport then take one. I sign off lots of applications for constituents,” he tweeted to a voter.

Legal experts say there are precedents for special status for a class of citizens in Cyprus. “Turkish Cypriots are EU citizens but they live in an area where EU law does not apply. It means they can exercise their rights when they are in the rest of the EU,” said Nikos Skoutaris, a lecturer in EU law at the University of East Anglia.

Schiek believes the Irish deal has the potential to go further than Cyprus and give Irish citizens a package of rights even if they have not moved country.

“The agreement means that Irish citizens continue to be EU citizens and avail of freedom of movement if they live in Northern Ireland after withdrawal. If they are in Northern Ireland they will be treated as if they are an EU citizen who has already moved because Northern Ireland will be the third country,” said Schiek.

If her interpretation is correct, it has the potential to include full family reunification rights allowing Irish citizens in Northern Ireland to have third-country spouses or dependents live with them without immigration barriers.

This notion is likely to be challenged and is currently being tested in Northern Ireland after the Home Office refused an American man’s application for a residence card to live and work in Northern Ireland after his Derry-born wife applied for the visa as an Irish national.

Emma DeSouza, who refused to apply as a British national, won her case in November but the Home Office is appealing.

The Department for Exiting the EU said more work was to be done on the rights of EU citizens in the UK and until the final deal on the UK’s relationship with the EU was complete there would not be a clear sense of what British citizens in Britain or Northern Ireland would have in the EU in future. 

But it confirmed that “Irish citizens would have additional rights if they traveled to other member states, but would not have additional rights relating to their lives in the UK”.