Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Ceisteanna (6)

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Ceist:

6. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to ensure that the threats posed by Brexit to the rights and equality of persons resident in Northern Ireland with Irish citizenship, particularly such as they relate to nationality, are addressed; and his plans to bring forward legislation to address this matter. [11875/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Justice)

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an mhéid a bhí le rá ag an Aire, an Teachta Flanagan, agus é ag freagairt an cheist dheireanach. Nuair a bhí an Bille um Tharraingt Siar na Ríochta Aontaithe as an Aontas Eorpach (Forálacha Iarmhartacha), 2019 á phlé sa Teach seo, bhí díospóireacht fhada againn ar impleachtaí na Breatimeachta ar chearta saoránaigh an Tuaiscirt. Is léir go bhfuil folús agus faillí ann ó thaobh náisiúntacht agus saoránacht de, agus go bhfuil gá le reachtaíocht. Céard atá i gceist ag an Aire a dhéanamh faoin cheist seo?

Under any scenario for the UK's exit from the European Union, the obligations and commitments of the Irish and UK Governments under the Good Friday Agreement remain. The Government will continue to work with the UK Government as co-guarantor to secure the full implementation of the agreement.

Eligibility for Irish citizenship is based on the nationality of either of a person's parents.  Alternatively, a request for naturalisation is based on fulfilling certain residence requirements along with other criteria.  The granting of citizenship carries with it, for both the applicant and the State, a number of obligations, and the criteria for the granting of Irish citizenship are set down in the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956.

In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the UK will leave the European Union on 29 March 2019. Under EU law, Irish citizens resident in Northern Ireland will remain EU citizens.  As Union citizens, they will continue to enjoy the right to move and reside freely throughout the EU, benefiting from the important right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of nationality while doing so. It is important to re-emphasise that both the Irish and British Governments have committed to the maintenance of the common travel area in all circumstances, which means that Irish and British nationals will continue to enjoy the rights currently in operation under this arrangement, including a right of residence and associated rights and privileges.

The provisions within the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956, as amended, take account of the Good Friday Agreement and, therefore, recognise the birth right of "all of the people of Northern Ireland" to identify themselves and be recognised as Irish or British, or both, as a matter of individual choice. This will continue to be the case after 29 March, or post Brexit, irrespective of whether the withdrawal agreement is ratified. Both this Government and our British counterparts have repeatedly and unequivocally committed to upholding the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and to the continued existence of the common travel area.

Mar atá ráite agam cheana, d'fhéadfadh dha fhadhb a bheith ann - na hathruithe ar cearta a tharlódh i gcás Breatimeacht gan beart a aistriú, agus an easpa cearta atá ann faoi láthair. There are already some deficits, even in the context of pre-Brexit or pre-hard-Brexit scenarios, and even as things stand. I have quoted on a number of occasions the hearings of the justice committee in January on rights and equality in the context of Brexit. We heard from the Committee on the Administration of Justice, which I have quoted previously, and also from Professor Colin Harvey. Professor Harvey stated:

[T]here is a rights and equality deficit in the North. I would put it as strongly as saying that there is a crisis in the North relating to rights and equality.

That is obviously of significant concern. It speaks to the lack of action by both Governments, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, in holding up the commitments that relate to this specific area.

Dr. Maurice Manning, in his capacity as president of the Irish Human Rights Commission, stated the following a number of years ago:

We have advised that a Charter would not need to create any new protections. It could restate the fundamental human rights that already exist in both jurisdictions, thereby helping to underpin the peace process and providing a basis from which political parties could demonstrate their continued commitment to human rights.

This lays the onus on both Governments to establish a charter of rights.

I ask the Minister once again what plans he has to legislate for this area.

Irrespective of the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union on 29 March or at some time thereafter, this is an issue that needs to be addressed. We all acknowledge the importance of the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts. However, some of those parts need to be strengthened and that will involve legislation, in particular legislation in the United Kingdom. I refer specifically to the need for a bill of rights. This is an issue that has been continuously raised in the context of our relationship with the United Kingdom, and one that I know features prominently in the context of the Northern Ireland talks, which are not now taking place.

It is important that we acknowledge the continued existence of the common travel area. In its current format it has served Ireland well now for almost 100 years, and that will continue. As co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, we need to continue to engage to ensure that citizenship and identity provisions, as outlined in the agreement, are fully respected and upheld in all the appropriate and relevant policy areas.

We have debated this matter back and forth and, as of yet, I do not believe the Minister has given any firm commitment to legislative change in this jurisdiction, even though it has been clearly outlined that that is needed. Perhaps he could clarify that. One case relates to Derry-born Emma DeSouza. Based on her Irish citizenship, her US husband has residency rights in the European Union but Ms DeSouza has been told that she must first renounce her British citizenship, which was automatically acquired at birth but never desired, sought or claimed. It is a default citizenship that appears to trump her second class Irish citizenship. There are numerous other cases of citizens who have not been able to obtain a visa through the Irish system because they are resident in the North, despite being Irish citizens. Issues also arise in relation to naturalisation. I have met in Belfast some of the numerous people who, despite having children who are full Irish citizens, cannot claim a right to naturalisation in this State because their child is not resident in this jurisdiction and they themselves are not Irish citizens. In several respects there is a clearly a legislative deficit that the Government has not as yet addressed. Does the Minister intend to deal with it and legislate to provide for such issues, Brexit or no Brexit?

A number of points have been raised by Deputy Ó Laoghaire. In response to his point about children, in the first instance it is important to draw a distinction between the rights of the child and the rights and expectations of the parents with regard to citizenship. Birth on the island of Ireland may result in Irish citizenship when the child was born without entitlement to citizenship of another country; the child was born to an Irish citizen or a UK citizen; the child was born to a person with unrestricted Irish residence; the child was born to a person with unrestricted residence in Northern Ireland; or the child was born to a parent with lawful residence. These issues are technical and complex but I accept that what we need is clarity in relation to persons who are born on the island of Ireland and in respect of persons who may be non-EEA parents resident in Ireland having to apply for Irish citizenship through our naturalisation process.

I acknowledge the importance of the issue and refer to editorial comment in today's edition of The Irish Times, which makes specific reference to the issues surrounding what Deputy Ó Laoghaire has said. There is an onus on the UK Government in this regard to protect the Good Friday Agreement and to recall commitments made in respect of these issues, with particular reference to the citizenship entitlement of people who are currently in residence in Northern Ireland, born in Northern Ireland but, in effect, Irish citizens. There are a number of issues that still require clarification but I assure the House of the efforts of the Government in this regard.