Every person born in the north of Ireland is currently regarded as a European Union citizen for immigration purposes after the British government backed down in the face of a marathon campaign by a Derry woman and her US-born partner.
Emma DeSouza from Magherafelt in County Derry had fought an immigration battle to allow her husband, Jake, stay in the north of Ireland, without being forced to abandon her Irish identity.
Emma applied for a residence card for Jake to live and work in Derry in 2015 - the same year they were married in Belfast. She identified herself as an Irish citizen in the application. The application was rejected on the basis that Emma was considered a British citizen, even though she was born in the north of Ireland.
“My lifelong Irish identity is evidently considered secondary to an unclaimed British identity,” Emma said at the time.
The Derry woman was told she could reapply identifying herself as British or ‘renounce her British citizenship’, and reapply as an Irish citizen.
Emma never considered herself British, and found herself being asked to renounce a citizenship she never had. An Immigration Tribunal ruled in 2017 that she was an “Irish national only who has only ever been such”. However in 2019 the Home Office appealed this decision to an Upper Tribunal, and won.
As their four-year campaign gained momentum, the Home Office finally conceded the move this week, albeit in a time-limited fashion. It changed its rules so that Jake and others in his position can seek residency before the end of the Brexit transition period.
The move brings some official British recognition for a key section of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a major achievement for an activist campaign organised by two young people from scratch.
“The changes to the immigration rules will have a positive impact on families across Northern Ireland and will provide a route to family reunification under the EU regulations, whether that person identifies as Irish or British or both,” Emma said.
“We personally know a number of families that will benefit from this change and are filled with joy and relief that these families will not face calls to renounce British citizenship or face years in court like we have.”
The rule change had widespread support but was repeatedly frustrated by Tory government officials, without explanation.
“These changes are on the back of years of campaigning for the full recognition of our right to be accepted as Irish or British or both under the Good Friday Agreement,” Emma said.
“We have always contended that no one should be forced to adopt or renounce a citizenship in order to access rights. To do so goes against both the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
“I am an Irish citizen and have the right to be accepted as such. The Home Office now concedes that point.”
However she noted that the change still has not given full legal effect to the Good Friday Agreement, as the measure expires next year. Large sections of the 1998 peace deal remain unimplemented in British law. “It is still an uphill battle,” she said.
“What these changes don’t do is address the wider citizenship and identity issues that our case has uncovered. The failure of the British government to give domestic legal effect to the birthright provisions of the Good Friday Agreement remains, and our unique right to be accepted as such is not represented in domestic paper, policy and practice – this has to change.”
She said the British government had “conceded on the principle” but had still not yet fulfilled their obligations. “Without addressing the wider gap in legislation these changes, whilst enormously welcomed, may well be no more than a sticky plaster.”
Nevertheless, both Sinn Fein and the SDLP welcomed the development, as did the 26 County Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney. Mr Coveney described the move as “a good and important step” and paid tribute to Emma “for her principles, determination and her impactful campaign”.
Sinn Féin’s Niall Ó Donnghaile paid tribute to the couple but said his party was concerned about the limited nature of the announced changes. SDLP MP Claire Hanna said that “it is a significant step forward” but warned that “there is still work to do”.