The U.K.’s membership in the EU was the glue that helped hold together the Good Friday peace agreement — Brexit threatens to unstick it.
With just weeks until Brexit day, a significant portion of Northern Ireland’s 1.9 million residents could find themselves losing rights that their neighbors continue to enjoy — for example to education, medical care and some types of housing.
The potential consequences of a no-deal departure, which have been largely overlooked thus far, are set to impact hundreds of thousands Irish citizens who are native to the region. In a series of House of Commons votes Tuesday night, MPs indicated they want to avoid no deal. But an attempt to prevent it happening on March 29 failed to win support, meaning the cliff edge is still very much in sight.
It is particularly alarming in Northern Ireland’s febrile and polarized political atmosphere, where all citizens, whether they identify as British or Irish, were promised that they would continue to be treated equally after Brexit.
The region has had no government for two years and a potential hard border with the Republic of Ireland threatens to provoke a return to violence between the region’s mostly Protestant unionists and largely Catholic nationalists. A car bomb earlier this month in Northern Ireland’s second city Derry (also known as Londonderry) highlighted that the potential for violence is not far from the surface.
“We have a situation that Irish citizens [would] have no legal connection to the jurisdiction or country in which we are born,” said Martina Anderson, a Sinn Féin MEP. “The last thing we need in Northern Ireland is a differentiation of rights.
“The situation is dire,” Anderson said, adding that her constituents regularly contact her worried about the situation post Brexit and that neither British nor Irish governments have done enough to reassure them.
Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which largely put an end to decades of conflict over Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, people born in the region are entitled either to British or Irish passports (or both) and are guaranteed equal rights regardless of their nationality. About 20 percent of Northern Ireland’s population holds only an Irish passport, according to 2011 census data.
The U.K.’s membership in the EU had papered over many of the tricky details of the arrangement, but with Brexit due to happen on March 29 with or without a deal, those legal ambiguities are due to be exposed.
“We’re actually in quite a difficult situation,” said Daniel Holder, the deputy director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, an independent human rights group. “No one’s really working on it.”
Researchers found that few of the provisions of the Common Travel Area are included in domestic law.
The list of issues to sort out is long: from immigration rules, to rights related to residency, access to education, social security and health care. To take one example, under Northern Irish health care legislation, only British citizens or European Economic Area citizens are currently entitled to certain types of home help or community care. But EEA citizens, including Northern Ireland-born Irish citizens, stand to lose this benefit after Brexit if there is no deal and hence no transition period.
Similar concerns exist over education, where it remains unclear whether Irish citizens will be able to pay the (less expensive) home rate for Northern Irish universities. Although few expect a sudden post-Brexit hike in fees, it would be legally difficult for universities to discriminate in favor of Irish citizens over, for example, Spanish or French students, according to Holder.
A research paper commissioned by the Joint Committee of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission came to similar conclusions about the need to clarify post-Brexit rights.
Politicians commonly invoke the earlier Common Travel Area between the U.K. and Ireland as guaranteeing a fallback for ensuring a range of rights for citizens of both jurisdictions. However, the human rights researchers found that few of the provisions of the CTA are included in domestic law.
“The CTA is written in sand, and its terms are much more limited than is often believed to be the case,” the report says.
“There is a need to identify clearly rights and entitlements that stem from EU law” — Les Allamby, Chief Commissioner of Northern Ireland’s Human Rights Commission
Other rights, currently enjoyed by all residents of the island, are set to be disrupted. Take health care access along the 500-kilometer border. Due to overlapping EU rules in a number of areas, all-island health care currently exists for situations such as emergency health care provisions and access to highly specialized treatments such as radiotherapy. Cancer patients in the northern county of Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland, are entitled to receive radiotherapy in neighboring Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital, just over the border.
Fill the gaps
Holder said the British government has only very lately been thinking of all the implications of leaving the EU for Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, if at all, and that there is an urgent need to introduce legislation to fill the gaps.
Chief Commissioner of Northern Ireland’s Human Rights Commission Les Allamby largely agreed. “There is a need to identify clearly rights and entitlements that stem from EU law,” he told POLITICO.
“To provide legal certainty and clarity, we need a formal Common Travel Area treaty to cover immigration rules, travel rights, residency, and related rights to education, social security, work, health, security and justice,” he added.
There are indications that both the British and Irish governments are aware of the need to move quickly. Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said earlier this month that a new bilateral agreement between Dublin and London is “ready to go.” No similar announcement followed from the British government, however.
A spokesperson for the U.K.’s Department for Exiting the EU said the government is “working to ensure that the necessary steps are taken to protect all these rights.
“The people of Northern Ireland who are Irish — and thus EU citizens — will continue to have access to rights, opportunities and benefits that come with EU citizenship,” she added.