A campaign alleging that Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland will have their citizenship rights undermined by Brexit has been branded “alarmist and irresponsible”.
Immigration activist Emma DeSouza is at the centre of a campaign which asserts that the rights of NI-born Irish citizens under the Belfast Agreement are being “trampled on” by the UK government.
In essence, the Co Londonderry-born woman has claimed a change in the UK’s immigration rules means that NI-born Irish nationals will not be considered an EEA (European Economic Area) national in the UK .
Mrs DeSouza claims that, as a result, Irish citizens living in the UK will be unable to apply for settled status post-Brexit and will be exempt from retaining their full rights as EU citizens.
She asserted that the birthright provisions of the Belfast Agreement – the right to identify as Irish or British or both – are being diminished.
And she further alleged that the “redefinition” of an EEA national will create two tiers of Irish citizens – those born in the Republic who will be considered an EEA national in the UK, and those born in NI who will not.
Mrs DeSouza has won the backing of numerous politicians, lawyers and human rights campaigners, as well as receiving widespread social media support, with hashtags such as #WeAreIrishtoo and #IstandwithEmma trending on Twitter.
There are even plans for a rally to be held at Belfast City Hall on April 20 to further spread these views.
But the campaign has been challenged by a regular columnist on the Slugger O’Toole blog, who warned about the impact of the wide dissemination of her “misunderstanding” of the EU settlement scheme.
In an article published on Slugger on April 2, the author – who goes by the name Willow – sought to debunk Mrs De Souza’s claims.
He clarified that the UK government’s definition of an EEA citizen does not represent a change to the status of Irish citizens in the UK.
The apparent “redefinition” of an EEA national referred to by Mrs DeSouza is contained in a document presented to the House of Commons on March 7, entitled ‘Statement to Changes in Immigration Rules’.
Willow said: “The purpose of the definition of ‘EEA citizen’ in the document is simply to make clear that EEA citizens who are also UK citizens are not included within the scope EU settlement scheme.
“The reason they are excluded is because Irish citizens already enjoy a right of permanent residence in the UK and therefore there is no need for them to apply to a special scheme,” he added.
“There is no change to the status of Irish citizens in the UK. There is no attempt to remove EU citizenship. Yet that is the impression being given.”
Therefore, Willow stated, there is nothing for Irish citizens to be alarmed about, and he accused Mrs DeSouza of “spreading unnecessary alarm”.
“In my view,” he continued, “the campaign promotes a misreading of the Good Friday Agreement’s provisions on identity and citizenship”.
Despite Willow’s comments, a follow-on article by Mrs DeSouza was published on Slugger just two days later (April 4), entitled ‘We are Irish too — fact checked’.
In it, Mrs DeSouza attempted to offer rebuttals to many of the points put forward by Willow.
Responding to Willow’s accusation that she was “spreading unnecessary alarm”, Mrs DeSouza stated: “There are serious legal ramifications for the people of Northern Ireland through this change. Not least because the people of Northern Ireland are being excluded from a scheme which is open to all other EU nationals – because we’re being presumed as British. This in itself appears to be a breach of the Good Friday Agreement.”
After reading Mrs DeSouza’s piece, Willow expressed his concern that she was simply repeating the misunderstandings which prompted his original article.
In another attempt to disprove these claims, Willow sent his additional thoughts on the matter to the News Letter.
He stated: “The first of Emma’s misunderstandings is that the definition of EEA citizen with which Emma has taken exception is not of general application. It relates only to this scheme, the purpose of which relates only to the right to live in the UK.”
Willow also addressed Mrs DeSouza’s claim that Irish citizens not applying to settle in the UK means that they cannot retain full access to their EU rights and benefits.
“EU rights and benefits can only be granted by the EU. The UK cannot and does not grant these rights,” he added.
“Irish citizens will continue to be EU citizens and thus will continue to enjoy EU rights and benefits. As a result of Brexit, it is British citizens not Irish citizens who will lose EU rights and benefits, while Irish citizens will continue to enjoy the same UK rights as UK citizens.
“This is something for Irish citizens to welcome and makes Emma’s desire to apply to the settlement scheme somewhat absurd: applying for permission to settle in the UK would represent a diminution in rights when compared to the current automatic right of residence.”
Finally, Willow states that Mrs DeSouza’s campaign encourages “gross alarmism”, and labelled it “irresponsible”.Mrs DeSouza has been embroiled in a long-running legal wrangle with the Home Office after her American husband’s application for a visa to live in the UK was denied.
Emma married US-born Jake DeSouza married in Belfast in 2015. But when her visa application for Jake’s spousal right to live in Northern Ireland was rejected, she was told it was because she had made the request as an Irish national.
As a British citizen, the Home Office informed her that she could renounce her citizenship and reapply as an Irish citizen to ensure her husband’s visa. However, Mrs DeSouza insists that she has never been British, a status that she can therefore not reject.
She also claims this undermines her Irish citizenship rights under the Belfast Agreement, which allows people born in NI choose to be British citizens, Irish citizens or have dual citizenship.
Her claim against the Home Office’s automatic presumption of her Britishness was upheld by a tribunal judge last year. The Home Office was granted permission to appeal.
Northern Ireland’s chief human rights commissioner has called on the UK to conduct an “open and transparent” examination of the post-Brexit rights of NI-born Irish citizens.
Les Allamby, chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, was speaking after UK immigration minister Caroline Nokes last week said the Government was not carrying out a “formal review” into the citizenship rights of people in NI after Brexit.
Prime minister Theresa May said on a visit to Belfast in February there would be a review into how Brexit is affecting Irish citizens’ rights in NI.
In parliament last week, Mrs Nokes clarified: “The prime minister asked the home secretary to work with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to review the issues, not to conduct a formal review.”