The UK and Ireland: another threat to the common home

It may be dawning on the Irish north and south that one unexpected result of making Good Friday Agreement stick is the end of the British regarding the Irish as a special case. Unhindered travel without a passport under the CTA, may not be the only link that’s about to be broken.

A recent report by former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, “ Citizenship: our Common Bond” has been a big influence on the draft Immigration and Citizenship Bill. An amendment to the Bill, we’re reliably informed, as in Mick’s post, will bring in new ID requirements that will erode unhindered travel within our archipelago. In his report Goldsmith makes the case for ending the right to vote in Westminster elections by Irish citizens from the Republic who would go to live in GB after his plan became law. Existing Irish voters would be spared. The plan depends on being able to distinguish between the Irish coming from the Republic to Great Britain and northerners living in GB who opt for Irish citizenship under the GFA and who of course retain the fundamental right to vote in Westminster elections.

It’s hard to think of a more futile exercise.

But bracket the new CTA rules with any halt in the trend towards citizenship interchangeability that has typified the British-Irish relationship for decades, and we suddenly find that we have more barriers not fewer between us. A very unwelcome set of outcomes that is being tamely accepted with scarcely a squeak of protest.
Says Goldsmith: I do propose that government gives consideration to making a clear connection between citizenship and the right to vote by limiting in principle the right to vote in Westminster elections to UK citizens. This would recognise that the right to vote is one of the hallmarks of the political status of citizens; it is not a means of expressing closeness between countries. Ultimately, it is right in principle not to give the right to vote to citizens of other countries living in the UK until they become UK citizens

The aim of the Goldsmith report is to rationalise the legacy of the old open door policy of Empire and reinforce modern British citizenship as a common bond. The right of abode and citizenship are linked but not the same. The Irish are ok there. But the right to vote is part of the common bond of citizenship. Goldsmith recognises the fact of the 1949 Act under which the Irish are not regarded as foreigners under English law. But this Act was the result of Ireland finally severing the Commonwealth link and becoming an anomaly that somehow had to be regularised . Nowadays special rights for Commonwealth citizens in the UK have all but disappeared. Much the same, implies Goldsmith, should apply to the Republic’s Irish. But he wants to assure Northerners who are Irish citizens that their voting rights would remain unaffected:

Anyone who exercises their right under the Agreement to identify themselves as Irish and to take up Irish citizenship should not lose their right to vote in Westminster elections as a result of any change made to restrict voting rights to UK citizens. Hence it would be necessary to distinguish this group of Irish citizens from others.

Here’s where it occurs to him there might be a problem.

I have not been able to examine the different practical means of doing this but this would have to be part of further consideration of the issue. My proposal is dependent on finding a satisfactory means of distinguishing the two categories in a way that did not affect the position of those exercising rights under the Good Friday Agreement

“No satisfactory means of distinguishing between Irish citizens in the Republic and Irish citizens indigenous to the North, Peter? You can say that again.

When I put the point to Peter Goldsmith he looked at me blankly. There may be practical difficulties in the way of depriving Republic Irish citizens of the Westminster vote. But he had no doubt at all that it’s right and proper to do so.

He is gracious enough to concede:

Ireland is of course a member state of the EU as well. This means that Irish citizens would retain the voting rights that other citizens of EU member states have in the UK. Hence the extent of the change that I am proposing as it relates to Irish citizens is to restrict their right to vote in Westminster elections, while retaining their right to vote in European, local and devolved elections. Also, as I have said, the restriction of the right to vote in Westminster elections should be phased, so that no person who is already resident or registered to vote in the UK loses the right to vote.

To me, this piece of lawyerly tidying up completely fails to understand the enmeshed nature of the British-Irish relationship.

But who’s around to defend it?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London