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Northern Ireland Residents: British Passports

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered British passport ownership by Northern Ireland residents.

I am thankful that this debate has been called and placed on the Order Paper today. I am also glad to see the Minister in his place.

The issue that I wish to raise unites people of all backgrounds, traditions and preferences in Northern Ireland in terms of their nationality, whether they describe themselves as British, Irish or Northern Irish. Here in the House of Commons, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has looked at the issue on several occasions and, again, there has been unity, with hon. Members from the DUP, SDLP, Alliance, the Conservative party and the Labour party all agreeing on the issue. It is uncontroversial with everyone except, it would seem, the Home Office. The issue was first raised by me back in 2005 via a private Member’s Bill, which had insufficient parliamentary time and therefore did not proceed. So, what is the issue?

Our Government and, indeed, successive Governments have accepted that people in Northern Ireland can describe themselves and be accepted as British, which is what they are under the United Kingdom constitution, Irish, if they prefer to be known and regarded as Irish, or Northern Irish, if they wish to be so. Indeed, the census results released last month demonstrated that a vast majority of people describe themselves in a multitude of ways and a combination of those three ways. The position with passports is that residents in Northern Ireland, whatever their background or description, can apply for an Irish passport and there is no additional cost or form filling as a result of Irish Government action taken several years ago, which regards them as Irish if they so choose.

I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for bringing that forward. He is right. My father, who is not with us anymore, was born across the border and yet grew up as British when he moved to Northern Ireland. Does my hon. Friend not agree that those who may be born a mile or two across the border, have lived in Northern Ireland all their lives and have happily paid their British tax with their British national insurance number are entitled to pay the same amount as anyone else under the same circumstances? It really is illogical. My hon. Friend has pursued the matter at some length and we look forward to the Minister giving a decent response to a matter that has been outstanding for a number of years.

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head in a succinct way, which I hope to elaborate on over the next few moments.

The Irish Government took action because they regard citizens on the island of Ireland as Irish citizens, if they choose to be so regarded. Unfortunately, our Government have not done the same. There are those who are resident in Northern Ireland, and have been for decades, who must be able to do the same for a British passport as those who choose to be Irish can do for an Irish passport, yet they are not permitted to do so. We have an open land border with more than 280 crossing points along its 300-mile length and we are all familiar with the issue in relation to the protocol, the EU and all those things. Over decades and for generations, communities and families have traversed this open border for business and socialising. For that reason and because of the common travel area, successive British Governments have indicated that they do not mind which nationality people prefer to have.

According to UK law, anyone born before 1949, when the Republic of Ireland left the Commonwealth, who wishes to become a British subject can do so, but anyone born after 1949 cannot. That means that if someone were born in the Republic in 1950 and the day after their birth moved to live in Northern Ireland, became a UK resident, grew up and became a UK taxpayer and UK voter—in one famous instance they sat in the British establishment of the House of Lords—they would still not be regarded as a British citizen, because they were born at the wrong time. People born a few miles across the border are disadvantaged in this way. They have to go through the same naturalisation process as people coming from the other end of the earth in order to be regarded as British citizens. This has obviously created angst and annoyance.

We now have a tale of two passports. One is a passport of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which people like me cherish and will have for as long as we live, as will our children and grandchildren. The other is of the Irish Republic, which some people in Northern Ireland are forced to have because they cannot have the passport they associate with their sense of identity, allegiance, loyalty and belonging. They are British, but they are forced to have an Irish passport, because they of an accident of birth a mile on the wrong side of an open border.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has campaigned on the issue for many years. Does he agree that it has been clear throughout the peace process and indeed stretching further back that the British Government have been incredibly generous to those who want to take Northern Ireland out of the Union and have made Northern Ireland an incredibly accommodating and welcoming place for them? Does he agree that they have been generous on citizenship and dual identity and such issues, but when it comes to supporting those who believe in the Union, choose Northern Ireland as their home and who have been British citizens for the majority of their life, the generosity does not stretch that far?

My hon. Friend’s comment is very appropriate and accurate. In fact, many draw on the contrast of how our Government treat those who want to break up the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland compared to those who would prefer that we remain, because we are, in the words of what is more than a cliché, better off together.

The issue at the moment is that some people have an Irish passport because they need it to travel, but they would prefer to have a British passport. The Home Office in effect say to them, “Just naturalise. Just pay the £1,330 to get what is your right.” If they go on to the Home Office website—I hope the Minister can read this paper even from this distance, as I have enlarged it—the first page reads:

“Check if you can become a British citizen”.

They already are! That is what they demand. That is what they have been for decades, and then the Home Office says to check if they can become a British citizen. There is nothing more insulting or demeaning than to have that on the Home Office website. It tells them, “Well, of course you can avail yourself of British citizenship, now trot along and fill out the necessary form. Then apply for the passport and you will get one.”

Meanwhile, the neighbour in the house next door—or, in some cases, family members who were born at a different time—may want to have an Irish passport and may never even have visited the Irish Republic. They simply go along to the post office and ask for an Irish passport application, fill it out and attach the necessary fee, and an Irish passport comes in the post. The Irish Government have declared that they are prepared to recognise those people as Irish if they choose to apply for a passport. We want our Government to do exactly the same.

People have chosen and demanded to be regarded as British because they have lived here virtually all their lives—in some cases, for 60 or 70 years. They should not be forced down the route of applying for citizenship and going through the naturalisation process, which applies to people who come from thousands of miles away. That is particularly true when the same Government say repeatedly to everybody in Northern Ireland, “We accept that it is a diverse place.”

Successive Governments have repeatedly said they accept that many people regard themselves as British—I hope they will remain so—while some regard themselves as Irish. Each United Kingdom Government here in Westminster say that they accept those people’s right to be so regarded—except when it comes to the symbolic matter of owning a passport. What greater symbol is there of a person’s sense of belonging and nationhood, of who we are and what we are, than a passport? It describes who someone is and, if they are overseas and get into difficulty, to whom they should go for assistance. However, these thousands of people are regarded differently.

I understand that the Minister is Minister of State for the Northern Ireland Office, and that this is primarily a matter for the Home Office to resolve, but I hope that he will acknowledge in his response the hurt and anguish that people have felt over many years. I hope that he can relay to the Home Office the fears, views and demands of people who want this insult rectified.

Successive Home Office Ministers have come to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and tried to defend this, saying that they do not regard some of these people as the people of Northern Ireland, even though they have lived there all their lives. This is indefensible and it cannot be sustained. I hope that the Minister will take action with his colleagues in the Home Office, whose responsibility it is primarily to respond. I hope they will deal with the matter satisfactorily for all concerned, because there is nobody in Northern Ireland who objects to this proposition.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to address this issue, Sir Christopher. I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell)—my hon. Friend, if I may say so—for making his case so articulately. His constituents will certainly know that he has made their case with great force and passion, and I have understood it clearly. There is a point to be made about the difference between identity and citizenship, but I want to ensure that I spell it out accurately with reference to my notes, so I will come back to it.

On the issue of the Union, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am defiantly and ferociously pro-Union. Equally, under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, the Government are obliged to participate impartially, which may sometimes create tensions. I want to make it clear to everyone that I am pro-Union and this is a pro-Union Government.

On passports, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I slightly playfully point out that although I am somewhat known for my pro-Brexit views, I have not troubled to update my passport. I still carry an EU passport, which may surprise some. I want to put that on the record. I know that many people will share with the hon. Gentleman the passionate belief that our passport is a great symbol of who we are. However, personally, I am defiantly independent of the state, Government Minister though I may be. For me, my passport is an administrative thing, not a definition of who I am. I gently make that point to illustrate that perhaps not all of us feel exactly the same way about our passport.

The Minister is entitled to consider his passport whatever way he likes. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) mentioned a Member of the House of Lords. To encapsulate the absurdity of the position that my hon. Friend has outlined today, if the Member he mentioned went through the naturalisation process, he would have to demonstrate that he could speak English and he would be invited to Hillsborough castle for a citizenship ceremony governed by a lord lieutenant. The very same man was the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly for eight years and has been in the House of Lords for many years. If that does not encapsulate how absurd the requirement to go through the process to obtain a British passport is, I am not sure what else could.

The hon. Member makes his point with great clarity, of course. However, I observe that in public administration there are quite often moments, particularly around transitions and edge cases, that look absurd on the face of it.

Before I get on to my notes, I will make two points. Representing Wycombe, I have observed that geography is very different from what it used to be. The internet has shrunk the world immeasurably, and many of my constituents are closely in touch with events and people thousands of miles away, so geography has a slightly different meaning these days. I will also pick up the point on hurt and anguish; if I have learned one thing in my few weeks as Northern Ireland Minister, it is the decades—possibly centuries—of hurt and anguish that have built up on one another. I do take those issues very seriously, knowing how deeply felt they are. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) has spoken with great passion, and I know he sincerely means everything he has said.

Turning to matters of law, the right to apply for and hold a British passport is wholly contingent on the holding of British citizenship. It is perfectly possible to remain a British citizen even if someone chooses not to hold a British passport, or if they acquire and hold another passport. The people of Northern Ireland are guaranteed specific protections under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and they are considered by the agreement to be

“all persons born in Northern Ireland and having, at the time of their birth, at least one parent who is a British citizen, an Irish citizen or is otherwise entitled to reside in Northern Ireland without any restriction on their period of residence.”

The two birthright protections of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement guarantee this group the right to identify and be accepted as British, Irish or both, and the right to hold both British and Irish citizenship. The protections recognise the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland and do not apply more widely. The UK Government are steadfastly committed to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and those provisions are given full effect in law, which provides for British citizenship to be conferred at birth.

In that context, non-British nationals living in Northern Ireland would need to obtain British citizenship in order to receive a British passport, just as they would anywhere else in the United Kingdom. I think that is the heart of the matter. I have heard clearly the point made by the hon. Member for East Londonderry. It is the difference between identity and the administrative and legal status of citizenship.

I accept what the Minister says, and it is the repeated mantra that we have got from the Home Office. However, he alluded to the unique circumstances that pertain to Northern Ireland. That is what successive Governments of recent vintage have always done. Does the Minister not understand and accept the unique circumstances of the case that has been made, and that this is why the Home Office should act?

I certainly do understand the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, and the hon. Gentleman is very articulate and once again makes his case with great clarity. However, I have to tell him that unique circumstances in those matters apply in a great many places in the UK, including in my own constituency in some number. They are not the same unique circumstances, by any means, but I am gently trying to make the point that there are large numbers of people in the country who would claim special circumstances. The Government are under an obligation to deal fairly with everyone in the UK. The hon. Gentleman will remember some of the unfortunate circumstances of the Windrush affair, and there are other people who have had various difficulties. There are people in my constituency who, although they were born elsewhere, have lived there longer than I have been alive. They may or may not have British citizenship or a British passport, but I am glad to represent them.

Let me turn to some of the specific points that the hon. Member for East Londonderry made. He said that there are 40,000 people resident in Northern Ireland who were born in Ireland after 1949, and there is a sense of unfairness that they are made to apply for naturalisation. He enlarged a piece of the website that I could not quite read, but he made his point with some force. The crux of the matter is that an Irish national can naturalise in the same way as any other long-term resident who now considers the UK their home. I appreciate that at the heart of the sensitivity is the fact that people who identify as British, who were perhaps born not far from the border, but on the other side of it, are being told that they need to naturalise. He made the point clearly that for those who are British but were born on the other side of the border, this is a matter of utmost sensitivity.

The Government are treating those people—from an administrative point of view, they are not British citizens and they need to naturalise—in line with other nationals who reside here in the UK. We are glad that they feel at home here. We are of course glad that they identify as British—that they choose to be British—and we welcome them. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the case of our noble Friend in the other place. In order to ensure that we treat everyone in the UK fairly, they need to naturalise to make their nationality align with their identity.

That is the key point, and it is a matter of administration and law—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. I know that that is unsatisfactory to him, but we do not want to assume that all who identify as British necessarily wish to align their nationality. He might well ask whether it could be made easier and quicker for people of Northern Ireland who were born in Ireland to apply for naturalisation, but the requirements are made in statute. Irish nationals would enjoy more favourable provisions for naturalisation should they wish to apply.

One might ask why the Irish-born people that the hon. Gentleman represents have to naturalise at all. Under the common travel area, Irish people do not need to naturalise to reside in the UK. The common travel area provides that British and Irish citizens have the right to enter and remain in the other state without requiring permission. That is provided for in law, which the hon. Gentleman knows very well. They can make the decision to become a British citizen when they are ready to do so, as with any person who wishes to become British.

I think that the hon. Gentleman wants me to make specific commitments, but I have to disappoint him. The Government are very clear on the need to treat people fairly right across the UK. If we were to make special exemptions for the people he recognises as being on the cusp of a border, we would find ourselves in some considerable difficulty administratively.

In many ways, the Minister is arguing against himself. He knows that he does not have the space to concede in this debate. Whether people are a mile from the border or at the very south of Ireland, the principle remains the same. The entirety of the Republic of Ireland is legally treated differently from any other country in the world, with the common travel area, the lack of immigration controls and no restrictions on working or living in the United Kingdom.

Will the Minister reflect on the fact that in the last four years, His Majesty’s Government have blurred the lines between citizenship and identity? The shoe was on the other foot, but a Northern Ireland resident, and therefore a British citizen, who wanted British citizenship for her partner was uncomfortable with the notion that she had to denounce citizenship that she did not want. She is, in identity terms, an Irish nationalist, and she objected. She lost the case in court because the Government argued robustly the distinction between citizenship and identity. However, the British Prime Minister ordered a review into the matter thereafter and wanted to show generosity of spirit, given the complaints. All we are asking is that the Minister and this Government do exactly the same thing for people who are notionally, emotionally and in every other way practically British.

Once again, the hon. Gentleman makes his point with great passion and clarity. The Government welcome people’s choice to identify as British. We welcome the choice that people born in Ireland can make to apply for a British passport, and for non-British citizens to become British citizens. We recognise that the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is all the stronger for its rich diversity in all aspects, whether people travel to Great Britain from the southernmost parts of the Republic of Ireland or from far overseas. For all its diversity, the United Kingdom is improved. Britishness is perfectly compatible with Irishness and Northern Irishness, just as much as Englishness, Welshness, Scottishness or, in my case, Cornishness.

The Belfast/Good Friday agreement rightly understands the highly personal nature of decisions around identity and citizenship, and the exercise of those distinct birthrights. It affords the people of Northern Ireland the freedom to make their own choices on identity. To reduce Britishness to the passport that someone holds in our United Kingdom would overlook the freedoms that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement rights enshrine and a fundamental truth of the strength of the Union: that Irishness and Northern Irishness readily coexist and compliment Britishness. That is a fact that we all ought to celebrate.

Hon. Members have made their points with great clarity. I will certainly reflect on what they have said, but they will understand that the Government’s policy is as it stands.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.