On 18 January 2022, the House of Lords is due to debate the following motion:

Lord Hay of Ballyore (Democratic Unionist Party) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to grant an automatic right to a British passport to people born in the Republic of Ireland who have lived in Northern Ireland for 50 years or more.

Who can apply for a British passport?

Government guidance states that a person is eligible to apply for a British passport if they have British nationality. There are several types of British nationality, including British citizenship. The law on British citizenship is set out in the British Nationality Act 1981 as amended.

A person can qualify as a British citizen in a variety of ways. Citizenship by birth can depend on the place and time of a person’s birth and their parents’ circumstances. A person may also apply to become a British citizen by registration or naturalisation. A successful application for either makes legal changes to a person’s nationality and provides them with British citizenship.

Home Office guidance sets out several requirements that must be met before a person can obtain British citizenship by naturalisation. This includes that a person has resided in the UK for a minimum of five years before making an application. A person must also demonstrate knowledge of the UK by passing the ‘life in the UK’ test and attend a citizenship ceremony if the application is granted.

It currently costs £1,330 to make a naturalisation application to become a British citizen.

How does this apply to people born in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?

People born in Northern Ireland are generally considered British citizens by birth under the British Nationality Act 1981. However, such individuals can choose to identify as Irish, British, or both, and have the right to hold both British and Irish citizenship. These rights are known as the ‘birthright’ provisions for the people of Northern Ireland as established by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

The Belfast/Good Friday agreement defines ‘people of Northern Ireland’ as those born in Northern Ireland who, at the time of their birth, had at least one parent who was a British citizen, an Irish citizen or was otherwise entitled to reside in Northern Ireland, without any restriction on their period of residence.

People born in the Republic of Ireland do not fall under the definition of ‘people of Northern Ireland’. As described in a briefing note on the process for Irish citizens obtaining British citizenship by non-governmental organisation the Committee on the Administration of Justice, a person born in the Irish Republic but who is living in the UK, and who is not already entitled to British citizenship through other means, is required to make a naturalisation application to become a British citizen before becoming eligible for a British passport.

What parliamentary scrutiny has there been?

Concerns have been raised recently about the requirements for individuals born in the Republic of Ireland, but who have lived in the UK for a long period of time, to naturalise as British before they can obtain a British passport.

The House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee launched an inquiry on 18 December 2020 to scrutinise barriers to citizenship for Northern Ireland residents. The chair of the committee, Simon Hoare (Conservative MP for North Dorset), said the inquiry would consider if the process for Northern Ireland residents gaining British citizenship could be simplified.

The inquiry analysed the interaction between UK nationality law and the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It considered whether changes could be made to the rules around birthright commitments in UK law, and whether the Government should allow certain Northern Ireland residents born in the Republic of Ireland to be deemed eligible for a British passport.

What evidence did the committee consider during its inquiry?

The committee received oral and written evidence between March and May 2021.

Speaking to the committee in April 2021, Lord Hay of Ballyore (Democratic Unionist Party) shared his personal experiences of the British citizenship process. Lord Hay raised several concerns and described the process as “discriminatory” to those individuals born in the Irish Republic but who had lived in Northern Ireland for most of their lives. He argued the route to British citizenship for such individuals should be simplified. Lord Hay raised concerns about the cost of the naturalisation application, describing it as “very insensitive to many people who have already paid taxes and national insurance for most of their lives in Northern Ireland”.

The committee also heard from Emma DeSouza, a Northern Irish-born person who identifies as Irish and holds an Irish passport. Ms DeSouza had previously challenged a Home Office decision that she was automatically deemed a British citizen under the British Nationality Act 1981. More information on this case can be found in section four of the House of Commons Library briefing ‘Northern Ireland, Citizenship and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement’ (18 October 2019).

The committee heard evidence from the Government on 12 May 2021. The committee put Lord Hay’s evidence to Kevin Foster, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Home Office. The minister argued the citizenship process was fair and ensured that the same process applied to everyone born outside of the UK. He said:

Many people have been [in the UK] from across the Commonwealth for many years who have not taken up British citizenship but who have contributed to this society. We are very grateful for that, but we believe there is an inherent fairness in, as it stands, having the same process of naturalisation applying if you are not automatically a British citizen through birth here in the United Kingdom or citizenship via descent.

What did the committee conclude?

The committee published its report, ‘Citizenship and Passport Processes Relating to Northern Ireland’, on 7 July 2021.

It disagreed with the notion of “fairness” submitted by the Government. It argued that the “personal ties, relationships, geopolitical realities and movement of people” between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, as well as the historical connection between the two countries, meant that a bespoke solution should be introduced for Irish citizens. It also said the £1,330 naturalisation fee currently charged to Irish citizens seeking to become British citizens was higher than the administrative cost of the process.

The committee made some recommendations. These included abolishing the £1,330 fee, which was described as “at worst indefensible, and at best unreasonable and excessive”, given the relationship and political history between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The committee also believed the Government should waive the requirement for Irish citizens to pass a ‘life in the UK’ test, and allow attendance at the citizenship ceremony to be optional.

On the birthright provisions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, the committee highlighted ambiguity and varied interpretations between the UK and Irish Governments of the phrase ‘to be accepted as’ Irish or British, or both, in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It said both governments should clarify what this phrase means in practice and agree a shared approach to remove any inconsistencies.

In conclusion, the committee said it was important to recognise the special relationship between the UK and the Republic of Ireland:

The Home Office would be well advised to start from a deep understanding of and sensitivity to history, and a realisation that ‘one size fits all’ cannot work. There must be an approach which understands the interlocking relationships between Ireland and the UK, with quicker, simpler, cheaper citizenship processes that nevertheless continue to respect the significance of citizenship itself and the integrity of UK borders.

At the time of writing, the Government’s response to the committee’s report had yet to be published.

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Cover image by Ethan Wilkinson on Unsplash.