The Irish in GB are offered Brexit reassurances. Do they really need them?

The Times (£)  is carrying a story ” Irish NHS staff reassured over hard Brexit”  reporting that Irish nurses and doctors will remain a key part of the NHS in  England, ” despite plans to make the “British” ( sic – they mean English)  health service self sufficient within ten years.”

This is typical of stories in the London press which are confused about  devolution  and lump together Irish immigrants with others as foreign. Much of officialdom is ignorant about the common travel area and the legal position of the Irish in Great Britain as ”non- foreign” (whether all of them appreciate it or not).

There will be staff here from overseas in that interim period until the further number of British doctors is able to be trained and come on board in terms of being able to work in our hospitals,” the prime minister told the BBC Breakfast programme on Tuesday.

However, a spokesman for the health department appeared to row back on that yesterday and said that foreign-trained doctors and nurses from a number of countries including Ireland would remain integral to the NHS in the future.

“It’s very clear that Irish nurses play a key role and make a big contribution to the service. There are a number of nationalities: Irish, Indian, Greek and Pakistani, in particular, who are very significant in key parts of the NHS,” the spokesman told The Times.


Since the referendum – and now, after the Conservative party conference, what does it feel like to be Irish in Britain?  Uncomfortable, claims Peter Geoghegan  editor of Political Insight writing in the Irish Times. Let’s hope he feels better soon.

I loved Britain and its politics, because its leaders never said things like that. Sure the place has its faults. There are the reserve and the weather and the feeling, sometimes, that it is too much like home but not quite similar enough.

But temperance and tolerance – particularly in public discourse – were never an issue. They are now.

“It is increasingly uncomfortable living and working in the UK,” an Irish friend working in London wrote on social media. She is far from alone.

This morning my life in Britain looks much the same as it did yesterday. I still greet my elderly neighbour in the stairwell. I still chat to the Pakistani man in my local post office. But how I feel about the country I live in has changed.

Where once I was “non-foreign” in the most commodious sense, I now feel that I might need this legal jargon some day to protect my job or my right to stay here. By which time, I and thousands like me will probably have left.

On Irish and British immigrant rights in the Brexit climate the legal complications are probably more complicated than the practical ones. Irish rights in Britain have been expressed in terms of EU citizens’ rights and these may have to be unpicked, according to an authority on the subject, Bernard Ryan Professor of Migration Law at the University of Leicester. The rights of Irish citizens as EU citizens in both parts of Ireland to trade and work may be quite another matter.


Irish citizens are not considered ‘foreign’ in Britain, something which is linked to various rights and arrangements that directly or indirect favour them. In the event of a decision to withdraw, with the Republic of Ireland remaining inside the EU, the appropriateness of that special status might well be re-examined, either generally or in relation to specific rights.

Current arrangements

The fundamental provision concerning the status of Irish citizens in Britain is the Ireland Act 1949, which was passed when the Irish state withdrew definitively from the Commonwealth. Section 2(1) of the 1949 Act declares that ‘notwithstanding that the Republic of Ireland is not part of [Her] Majesty’s dominions, the Republic of Ireland is not a foreign country for the purposes of any law in force in any part of the UK.’ It goes on to provide that ‘references in any Act of Parliament, other enactment or instrument whatsoever … to foreigners, aliens [etc..] … shall be construed accordingly.’

After a decision to withdraw, the following questions concerning the legal position of Irish national appear the most likely to arise.

The Ireland Act 1949. In the event of the Republic of Ireland remaining within the EU, with the UK outside, questions might be posed as to whether it remains appropriate to classify it, and its citizens, as ‘non-foreign’. If changes were made, they would potentially affect all of the entitlements referred to above.

Position in immigration law. If the UK decided to withdraw from the EU, it would be necessary to resolve the question of the position of Irish citizens in immigration law.

If there was continued support for the common travel area principle, the most likely outcome is a general exemption from immigration control, in line with the position of British citizens in Irish law (above), so as to permit both entry and residence by Irish citizens. An exception could be made for exclusion and deportation cases.

The alternative would be a form of visa waiver for Irish citizens, regardless of where they enter from. This would permit entry and short-term stay, but not residence. The limited nature of this solution would also be difficult to reconcile with continued support for a common travel area between the two states.

Position in nationality law. A resolution of the position of Irish citizens within immigration law would permit clarification of their position in nationality law. At what point would they become ‘settled’ so as to permit them to acquire British citizenship by naturalisation, and their children to acquire it by virtue of birth in the UK?


Based on the analysis here, the following conclusions may be suggested as to the likely implications of a UK decision to withdraw upon the relationship with the Republic of Ireland, in relation to immigration and nationality law and policy:

  • The overall common travel area principle would probably continue to be supported by the two states.
  • It would probably be thought necessary to make specific adjustments to common travel area arrangements, e.g. to take account of persons with EU free movement rights in the Republic of Ireland, or to cater for international protection applicants
  • There could be pressure for wider changes to common travel area arrangements, such as the application of immigration control to air and sea travel from the Republic of Ireland to the UK, or rights of travel. These might lead on to consideration of a more comprehensive agreement between the two states.
  • It would be necessary to resolve the position of Irish citizens within UK immigration law and nationality law.
  • A wider questioning of the special status of Irish citizens in the UK, including their political rights, is also a possibility.