Lack of protections for northern nationalists exposed

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Letters from the North’s Electoral Office warning people who consider themselves Irish that they would not be allowed to cast their vote in forthcoming elections were ‘a mistake’, according to the chief electoral officer.

At least ten people received letters last month from the Electoral Office, which said their right to vote would be limited by their decision to identify themselves as Irish.

“As you have changed your nationality changed from Northern Ireland to Ireland this will affect the elections at which you are entitled to vote,” a letter to one voter said.

Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill branded the correspondence a “clear breach of the Good Friday Agreement” and said she had raised the issue directly with British Direct Ruler Karen Bradley.

She said the Electoral Office needed to take immediate steps to “repair the damage it caused”.

“With this correspondence, the Electoral Office are riding roughshod over that agreement and warning that hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens in the north will be disenfranchised,” she said.

The ‘mistake’ comes amid signs that the legal rights of Irish people in the north of Ireland are much weaker than is generally believed. Brexit has exposed areas of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for which Westminster legislation has never even been considered. While EU laws had been relied on, northerners who consider themselves Irish could face new forms of British state discrimination after March 29, when Brexit is due to take place.

A British threat to deport one Derry woman’s husband over her Irish identity is symptomatic of the problem which actually predates the Brexit crisis.

In 2016, the British government’s Home Office rejected Emma DeSouza’s American husband’s application for a visa over Emma’s refusal to describe herself as British. A court ruling in favour of the DeSouzas was then appealed by the Home Office.

Earlier this month, the British Prime Minister publicly vowed to address the issue, but Ms deSouza is sceptical of what she described as May’s “warm words”. She said this week that her family’s uncertainty continues.

“This is not a small thing, it’s been happening for a long time and I am not the only case,” she said.

“The only reason we ended up in this situation is because of the lack of legislative protections for citizens in Northern Ireland because the Good Friday Agreement has not been fully implemented.”

She added: “Here we are 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement and we don’t have any of these promises that were made to us.”

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