The newly released policy document, “Ireland and the negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union: The Government’s Approach”, contains a list of Brexit-related objectives for the Fine Gael-led coalition over the coming months and years. Notable among these is the emphasis on the Irish and EU citizenship currently enjoyed by the inhabitants of the UK-administered Six Counties. As I have pointed out several times before, following Britain’s abandonment of its EU membership, the people of the north-east will become the largest body of European Union citizens indigenous to – and living within – a territory outside the union itself. They will be in an almost unique situation whereby they and their legally-eligible descendants will remain nationals of Ireland and the EU by virtue of their place of birth while also being nationals of a non-EU state. A peace-brokered arrangement which the authorities in the latter country have shown no sign of challenging (so far).
As part of the Good Friday Agreement, the British and Irish Governments “recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.”
This important provision of the Agreement applies to c. 1.8 million people born in Northern Ireland. Those among this group who exercise their entitlement to Irish citizenship are in a unique category as they are not part of the Irish emigrant population, nor are they Irish citizens who have exercised their right of free movement to another EU Member State (or, upon UK departure, to a third country). Rather, they will form a distinct and large group of EU citizens who derive their EU citizenship by reason of their birth in a specific territory soon to be outside of the EU. Under the terms of an international agreement they also have a specific right to identify themselves by reference to their citizenship of an EU Member State (Ireland) rather than by reference to the (soon to be) third country, the UK, in which they reside.
Given the unique citizenship arrangements for those living in Northern Ireland, it is important that those in Northern Ireland who do exercise their entitlement to Irish citizenship will continue to enjoy their rights as EU citizens.
Objective: Protection of the unique status of Irish Citizens in Northern Ireland
Under the Good Friday Agreement the people of Northern Ireland have the right to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British or both. This means that people in Northern Ireland are not required for example, to self-identify as British in accessing public services. This arrangement should not be disturbed by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. With limited exceptions, people in Northern Ireland have the right to hold citizenship of Ireland and are therefore entitled to EU citizenship, including after the UK exits the EU. They are unique as a distinct and large group of people entitled to EU citizenship by virtue of their birth in a specific territory, recognised under the terms of a peace settlement and international agreement, which will be outside the EU. Irish citizens residing in Northern Ireland should continue to enjoy their rights as EU citizens across the Union notwithstanding the UK’s departure from the EU.
Throughout the withdrawal process, the Government will seek to ensure that the rights currently enjoyed by Irish citizens in Northern Ireland as EU citizens are not diminished.
The withdrawal agreement should contain no impediment to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland accessing programmes and services across the Union to which they are eligible, including those as may be provided for in any arrangements on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.
When it comes to post-Brexit policing and security arrangements by Britain in the north-east of Ireland the facts above must be borne in mind. Any future confrontations with the British Forces would involve not British citizens per se but rather those identifying as Irish and EU nationals. And recognised as such under international law. Which will make for interesting discussions in the years ahead, with London on one side and Dublin and Brussels on the other.
Note: Since there seems to be some inexplicable confusion over this on various websites, “indigenous” is a term used in international law to denote the habitual residents of a territory. That is, those born and living there. The definition is a legal one and refers to birth and residency. It has no connection to fictional notions of race, ancestry or tribalism. All persons living in the Six Counties if eligible for Irish citizenship are also EU citizens by virtue of being born in the contested region.
Persons from elsewhere in the European Union residing in a post-Brexit UK would be EU citizens living outside the union. They would not be EU citizens native to a territory in a jurisdiction outside the EU. French or Polish nationals in the United Kingdom might constitute the largest ex-EU populations but they would have emigrated from their home countries and the European Union itself. They would not be indigenous to the UK or to any claimed or occupied territory under its control.