In Northern Ireland we have the unique situation where we can claim dual nationality. The bulk of the population is split between those who claim Irish citizenship and those who claim British citizenship.
Following the news that sixth form pupils in the UK who hold Irish passports qualify for free university tuition in Scotland, the question arises whether the passport that a person from Northern Ireland holds, is the definitive mark of their nationality.
It was originally believed that students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland had to pay the higher fees in Scotland. The decision has now been made that, as Irish passport holders in Northern Ireland count as EU students, those who have Irish passports are exempt.
The possibility of students from both religious backgrounds taking up this tempting opportunity is very likely. Given that they could avoid paying up to £27,000 in fees over a three year period, Protestant students could face a dilemma over how much their citizenship is worth and whether having two passports questions their identity or nationality.
In East Belfast, students of Grosvenor Grammar school have decided to apply for an Irish passport with no apparent concern about what it represents.
The flexible manipulation of dual citizenship is not a new concept. In recent years when people in Northern Ireland wanted to travel back to countries such as Australia, they have applied for a second passport as a way to get another visa.
Speaking about the tuition fee waiver, DUP MP Gregory Campbell said he had raised the issue with Angus Robertson, the SNP leader in Westminster regarding the treatment of dual citizens in Northern Ireland.
“With such a unique situation, the Scottish executive should take an equally unique approach to Northern Ireland students.
“Rather than only those who are happy to have an Irish passport gaining free university places, the Scottish executive should remove all fees for students from Northern Ireland.
“This would restore fairness in that those who wouldn’t be comfortable being an Irish citizen can still avail of free places at Scottish universities.”
Mr. Campbell’s words have suggested that nationality in Northern Ireland is an option to be chosen. It is a bizarre arrangement that we live in a country where we choose the nationality that we feel most ‘comfortable’ with.
The Scottish government acted in a way that ensures the equal treatment of all EU citizens, but in Northern Ireland it has opened up a loophole that will add to the citizenship debate.
Whilst we remain torn between British and Irish sensibilities, Northern Irish citizens will not have a collective unique identity. For the foreseeable future, it looks like we will continue to have optional nationality. Within this framework, having two passports in the locker will be nothing more than a way to manipulate the system, and with £27,000 at stake, why not?