On Sunday 31 March, Emma de Souza tweeted a two-page excerpt from an unidentified 294-page document and stated:
‘On March 7th the UKG changed the definition of an EEA citizen to exclude those who are also British. They have also stated that ‘”as a matter of law” the people of Northern Ireland are British by birth. NI born Irish citizens will not be considered EU citizens.’
Within the two pages was a definition of ‘EEA citizen’ as a person who is a national of one of the EEA countries (including Ireland) who is not also a British citizen.
This tweet was widely retweeted with notes of alarm, including by journalists Newton Emerson and Steven McCaffrey, Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson and Alliance MLA Stephen Farry, and prompted much outrage among nationalists.
Ms Anderson even claimed she would be alerting ‘EU negotiators of “another” GFA Brexit breach’. Hashtags in solidarity with Ms De Souza were even initiated by the #Think32 account, which attracted hundreds of tweets.
Many people appeared to believe that the Government was removing ‘rights’ from Irish citizens and/or somehow refusing to recognise that Irish citizens were also EU citizens.
I have managed to identify the document in question as a ‘Statement to Changes in Immigration Rules’, which is a written statement to the House of Commons laid in Parliament on 7 March.
The two quoted pages form part of Annex 1 (Definitions) to a section of the document called ‘Appendix EU’, which is a revised EU Settlement Scheme, extending its scope to the EEA countries and Switzerland, removing the requirement for the fee that had initially been proposed, and making some other changes to the application process.
This is explained in the explanatory memorandum.
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 (because, as UK citizens they are of course already entitled to permanent residence in the UK).
This is not a change. It has been clear since the scheme was announced that such people do not need to apply to the scheme.
There is, therefore, absolutely nothing alarming in these changes for Irish citizens. 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.
Unionist politicians and commentators and the Government remain silent about this campaign which is spreading unnecessary alarm.
In my view, the campaign promotes a misreading of the Good Friday Agreement’s provisions on identity and citizenship (see Owen Polley’s article for a refutation of this). As does the Committee on the Administration of Justice’s complaint about Irish citizens being excluded from the 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.
Instead of welcoming this privileged status (which is reciprocated for UK citizens in the Republic of Ireland), it has been turned into an unnecessary problem.
Unionist politicians and commentators and the Government remain silent about this campaign which is spreading uncalled for alarm, but this latest episode surely requires an intervention to restore calm and provide assurance.