Opinion: giving Irish citizenship to non-Irish EU citizens in Northern Ireland would be a major showing of compassion and leadership

By Marek MartyniszynQueen's University Belfast

During the Brexit negotiations, the EU stood firmly behind Ireland. On many levels, this was an impressive and perhaps unprecedented showing of solidarity by other member states. The EU with its population of nearly 450 million citizens did its best, and largely succeeded, to protect the interests of Ireland with its population of nearly 5 million.

This should not be taken for granted. This display of unity comes on top of the significant benefits of the EU membership, which in monetary terms only amounted to net transfers of over €50bn since Ireland joined the Union in 1973. Now may be time for Ireland to consider how it could display solidarity in the context of Brexit. One way of doing so would be to strengthen the rights of non-Irish EU citizens living in Northern Ireland.

EU nationals living in the UK face anxiety and also risk discrimination. One of the underlying reasons is the refusal of the UK government to issue physical documents to EU nationals lawfully residing in the UK. Lack of such documents may inadvertently lead to discrimination by, for example, imposing extra burdens on potential employers to verify one's legal status online.

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Some fear that EU citizens in the UK may end up facing similar treatment to that of the Windrush generation. In recent years, many Commonwealth-born citizens were denied work, healthcare and often deported to countries of origin, which they frequently barely knew, despite decades of being legal residents of the UK. They too had not been issued any physical documents confirming their rights in the UK.

Another source of tension relates to how the rights of EU citizens living in the UK will be safeguarded. There is to be an independent monitoring authority, but little is yet know on how it will operate. Therefore, the anxiety EU citizens experience is understandable.

Some non-Irish EU nationals live in Northern Ireland. According to the 2011 census, about 2.5% of population of Northern Ireland are individuals born in EU member states other than Ireland. That is less than 50,000 people. Their position, their rights, could be materially improved should Ireland enable them to secure Irish citizenship.

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At the moment, non-Irish EU nationals living in Northern Ireland do not qualify for Irish citizenship because the rules require a period of residence in the Republic of Ireland and not on the island of Ireland so living in Northern Ireland does not count. In the context of Brexit, Ireland could consider reviewing its position. It could enable citizens of other EU member states who reside in Northern Ireland to become Irish. By doing so, they would secure rights under the UK-Irish Common Travel Area. These rights include right to work, study and vote, as well as access to social welfare benefits and health services. These rights are entirely independent of whatever emerges in the context of Brexit.

Apart from the most common means of securing citizenship on the basis of continuous residency, it is noteworthy that various countries facilitate routes to citizenship through other pathways. The most common is by means of investment (infamously referred to as cash-for-passport programmes). That is so, for example, in the UK, Malta and Cyprus (which has now been suspended). But there are other routes. For example, Israeli citizenship is available to all Jews who move to Israel, regardless of their previous place of residence. These are always domestic choices and such matters are not governed by European or international law.

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 Enabling non-Irish EU citizens in Northern Ireland to secure Irish citizenship would be a major showing of compassion and also of leadership by materially improving their legal position. It is a sovereign choice which Ireland may wish to consider.

Dr Marek Martyniszyn is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Queen’s University Belfast


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ