On 26 October 2022, the House of Lords is due to debate the following motion:

Lord Hay of Ballyore (Democratic Unionist Party) to ask His 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.

1. 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.

1.1 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 if one of their parents was either a British citizen or legally settled in the UK at the time of their birth. 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.

2. 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.

2.1 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.

The committee heard the government’s evidence 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.

More information on the DeSouza case can be found in section 4 of the House of Commons Library briefing ‘Northern Ireland, citizenship and the Belfast/Good Friday agreement’ (18 October 2019).

2.2 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” the government submitted. 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.

2.3 How did the government respond?

The government responded to the committee in September 2021 (although the response was not made publicly available until February 2022). The government said it had no plans to review the fee for citizenship applications. It argued setting different fee levels depending on the nationality of the applicant “would not be fair and would be inconsistent with our new global immigration system”.

The government said the ‘life in the UK’ test was “an important part of an individual demonstrating they possess the knowledge which we would expect someone who had been resident in the UK for such a lengthy period to hold”. It said Irish citizens could reside in the UK with minimal restrictions, but those “who make the personal choice to become British” were expected to follow the processes that apply to everyone who made that important decision. The government suggested that the test was not “a particularly onerous requirement”.

The government said the citizenship ceremony was also important, marking a “hugely symbolic event” in the naturalisation journey. The government believed it was “a reasonable and appropriate expectation” for everyone to participate in one, unless there were special circumstances such as a long-term health condition that would prevent someone attending.

The government stated its firm commitment to the birthright provisions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It said UK nationality legislation was compliant with the agreed text of that agreement. It said it would continue to work closely with the Irish government on a range of issues, including matters pertaining to identity and citizenship.

2.4 How did the committee respond?

The committee decided not to publish the government’s response initially, but to ask the Home Office to reconsider its view and respond again. Simon Hoare, the committee chair, wrote to Kevin Foster, then minister for immigration at the Home Office, in October 2021. He said the committee members were “appalled” by elements of the government’s response, “including its tone and at times blunt—seemingly ignorant—language”.

For instance, Mr Hoare said the level of fees applicable to Irish citizens applying for naturalisation had nothing to do with a global immigration system. He urged the Home Office to “understand, and create policy based on, the historical connection between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland”. He said the government’s points about the ‘life in the UK’ test were “dismissive” and “appalling”. He suggested the government failed to take account of the “careful arguments” the committee set out in its report about the circumstances of people who had been resident in the UK for, in some cases, more than six decades.

Mr Hoare argued the arrangements in the EU settlement scheme for people from Northern Ireland created a precedent for a bespoke approach. He found it “rather strange and illogical” the government had “cast aside” the committee’s recommendations for bespoke arrangements.

He also said the government had provided “no further clarity” on how it respected or upheld in practice the phrase ‘to be accepted as’ Irish or British or both.

2.5 How did the government respond again?

Kevin Foster and Conor Burns, who was then minister of state for Northern Ireland, sent a joint response in December 2021. On naturalisation fees, the ministers pointed out that Irish nationals enjoyed the “unique benefit” of automatic, free permanent residence rights in the UK. However, they said they were “cautious” about offering a preferential fee for naturalisation to any specific nationality “because of how it could be interpreted”. They argued setting a lower fee for Irish nationals would amount to direct discrimination.

The ministers acknowledged people might feel the need to pass the ‘life in the UK’ test did not recognise their knowledge and experience if they had lived in the UK for most of their life. However, they stressed this was not the intention. They argued it would be “impracticable” to change the system to one that could weigh up whether someone’s knowledge or contribution to society meant they did not need to take a test. It would also make the process more costly for everyone. They reiterated the test was “more than a symbolic process”. They suggested people with a long residence in the UK might be “better equipped to pass the test” and “might see this as being to their advantage”.

The ministers said the right to be accepted as Irish or British or both was ensured in law.

2.6 What has happened since then?

The committee published the government’s response and the exchange of correspondence in February 2022.

One of the committee members, Gregory Campbell (DUP MP for East Londonderry), held a Westminster Hall debate on British passports for Northern Ireland residents on 18 October 2022. Mr Campbell drew a contrast between the rules in the Republic of Ireland and those in the UK. He said residents in Northern Ireland could simply apply for an Irish passport. He said the Irish government was “prepared to recognise those people as Irish if they choose to apply for a passport”. He compared this with people born in the Republic of Ireland after 1949. He said they would have to “go through the same naturalisation process as people coming from the other end of the earth” to be regarded as British citizens, even if they had lived in Northern Ireland since the day after their birth. Mr Campbell called on the government to do “exactly the same” as the Irish government. He described it as an “insult” that people who regarded themselves as British were “forced down the route of applying for citizenship and going through the naturalisation process”. He said this situation was “indefensible”.

Steve Baker, minister of state at the Northern Ireland Office, said an Irish national could naturalise in the same way as any other long-term resident who now considers the UK as their home. He said that “from an administrative point of view, they are not British citizens”. He said they “need to naturalise to make their nationality align with their identity”. He suggested this was fair, as it was treating them “in line with other nationals who reside here in the UK”. He also pointed out that “Irish people do not need to naturalise to live in the UK”, as the common travel area gives them the right to enter and remain in the UK.

Mr Baker said he would reflect on the points raised in the debate, but “the government’s policy is as it stands”.

3. Read more

Cover image by Ethan Wilkinson on Unsplash. This article was updated on 20 October 2022.