Thursday, 22 June 2017
Maidin maith agaibh. I was not sure this fell within the Minister's remit but I am glad to see him back and I congratulate him on his new appointment. Perhaps he hoped he would get away from the issue of Brexit and the North for a wee bit. A bit like the Corleones, as soon as he thought he was out, they pulled him back in. Here we are and I appreciate the Minister coming before us, particularly as this is an important matter which we have discussed before.
As the Minister has outlined to a considerable extent, Brexit has caused a great deal of uncertainty across this island, in Britain and throughout Europe. It is fair to say that in the cut and thrust of debate and in the highlighting of people's concerns, one of the matters that has fallen below the surface is that which relates to the status of ethnic minorities and non-European Union citizens who are resident in the North. As a result of Brexit, the uncertainty around their status is particularly pronounced and it adds pressure to a section of society that is already vulnerable as a result of their status.
I hope to discover from the Minister whether this important issue has been factored into the Government's consideration and negotiating stance. A number of organisations representing the ethnic minority community have come together in the North. If the Minister has not seen it already, there is probably an outstanding request from them to meet him. The organisations in question represent a broad range of new communities and ethnic minorities seeking an amendment to the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 2004. I appreciate I am preaching to the choir and the Minister knows that, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, people born on the island of Ireland may avail of Irish or British citizenship, or both. For many of our ethnic minority communities, that is not the case. This means members of ethnic minority communities and immigrants may be here from EU or non-EU states and may be resident in the North and have children who were born here and who qualify for Irish citizenship. They are rearing families in communities here and they identify as Irish and new Irish. Their children may be in Gaelscoileanna or playing for their local GAA clubs. Brexit has added much concern, fear and uncertainty for them.
That concern, fear and uncertainty is as pronounced as it is among EU citizens living in the North who wish, because of their status, to avail of Irish citizenship but cannot do so. Some of the more established and older settled communities in the North, such as the Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern communities, have reared families, opened businesses and contributed to life, helping in their own way to build the peace and reconciliation process. They are deeply concerned, particularly those with children who are Irish citizens and who have Irish passports. I do not like the term "naturalisation" but naturalisation period relating to the people to whom I refer only qualifies them to apply for British citizenship and passports in the North.
I appreciate that the situation at present is somewhat hypothetical and not exactly tangible. My understanding is that the Government could take the initiative to amend the Act, which would be very important and symbolic. It would also, in practical terms, be supportive of the ethnic minority communities in the North that are deeply concerned about their status as a result of Brexit.
I thank Senator Ó Donnghaile for raising this matter. It gives me an opportunity to clarify the situation. The Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956, as amended, sets out the law governing Irish citizenship. The Act distinguishes between the entitlement to Irish citizenship by birth and descent and to the acquisition through the process of naturalisation. With regard to citizenship by means of birth in the island of Ireland, the Act specifies certain residence requirements which must be made immediately preceding the birth of the child, where the child is born to non-nationals.
Prior to 1 January 2005, every person born on the island of Ireland was entitled to be an Irish citizen regardless of any lack of ties to Ireland. Following a referendum of the Irish people the 27th amendment of the Constitution changed the situation in relation to entitlement to Irish citizenship. As a result the 1956 Act was amended by the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 2004. The changes came in to effect on the first day of January 2005. As and from that date, a child born in the island of Ireland to certain non-nationals is not entitled to be an Irish citizen unless the child's parents have been lawfully resident in the island of Ireland for a total of three years during the four years preceding the birth of the child. Periods of residence which are unlawful, for the sole purpose of having an application for refugee status determined or for the purpose of study are excluded from the determination of periods of reckonable residence. The position of foreign nationals, whether residing in the jurisdiction of the State, or in Northern Ireland or any other jurisdiction, is solely a matter for the authorities of the relevant jurisdiction, including where the foreign national may be a parent of an Irish citizen child. The sole fact of being the parent of an Irish citizen child does not bestow to the parent any entitlement to Irish citizenship. The grant of Irish citizenship through naturalisation is based on the individual satisfying the statutory conditions for naturalisation, which includes having the required lawful residence in the jurisdiction of this State.
It is, however, open to the parents of an Irish child to make an application for Irish citizenship through naturalisation, if and when they fulfil the conditions for naturalisation as set out in the Act. The eligibility for a grant of Irish citizenship through naturalisation, as mentioned previously, is based on the individual having the required lawful residence in the jurisdiction of this State. Residency in the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland is not reckonable under the Act for the purposes of naturalisation, except in circumstances where the application is grounded upon being the spouse or civil partner of an Irish citizen.
From a Brexit perspective, and these are the circumstances under which Senator Ó Donnghaile has raised this matter, it is important to be clear about the scope, and about what is outside the scope of the Article 50 negotiations as they relate to residency or other rights. In this context, the negotiations are primarily concerned with the impacts on the European Union nationals in the UK, including in Northern Ireland, and the corollary of UK nationals in the European Union. This specific strand of the negotiations has been prioritised for early consideration between the negotiating parties. This does not change the right of persons born in Northern Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement. Persons may apply for Irish citizenship in accordance with the legislative changes arising from the Good Friday Agreement. The question of citizenship, however, remains very much a national competency.
Obviously Ireland is maintaining very close contact with these negotiations and I would be very happy to keep the House informed. I very much acknowledge the point raised by Seanadóir Ó Donnghaile and I recognise his own - if I can describe it as such - specialist interest in this issue. I will be happy to keep the House fully informed or to meet with the Seanadóir on any occasion he feels it may be helpful to the points as raised.
I welcome the offer and I appreciate that the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is new in to the post and that he will bring his own nuances and expertise as he moves ahead. This issue merits us looking at it and I appreciate the complexities of the matter. We have an obligation to look at it given that there are citizens in the North who very much identify as Irish. They have lived in the North for many years and want to engage in seeking a positive way in which to be part and parcel of the life of Ireland in its entirety. Perhaps the Minister will meet not just with me, but might also consider meeting with representatives of the group that is campaigning on this issue. I appreciate the Minister's response and his offer to meet.
By way of conclusion, the Seanadóir said at the outset that this is a hypothetical situation and it does not have any effect yet. It is difficult to be precise about the avenue down which we should proceed in this respect. For clarity, the position of third country nationals who may be residing in Northern Ireland, including those who may have a child or children born in Northern Ireland, is that they currently have no entitlement to Irish citizenship simply by virtue of their residing in Northern Ireland, nor do they have any entitlement to unfettered free movement under the common travel area. In effect, their position as it relates to Irish citizenship remains very much unchanged. I repeat the point that the grant of citizenship remains very much a national competency. There are no current plans to amend the legislation.
The House is aware that it is our intention to maintain the existing arrangements with regard to the UK and the Government position is to protect the arrangements that have been longstanding under the common travel area arrangement between Ireland and the UK. We do not plan to change the current position in advance of knowing; so far as the issue of citizenship is concerned, I believe that Senator Ó Donnghaile will accept the point that we really need to know what the ultimate arrangements will be around the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. Should any issue arise during the course of the negotiations between the UK and the other EU member states, I would be happy to revisit the issue. I would certainly be happy to undertake to keep the House informed of any issues that may arise that may warrant an opportunity to revisit the current arrangements.