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Republic of Ireland: British Passports

Volume 824: debated on Wednesday 26 October 2022

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

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.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box and I wish him well in his new role. I am grateful to have the opportunity to hold this debate in your Lordships’ House. This is a very personal issue to me and to many out there who believe that this is a serious anomaly that needs to be addressed.

I will give a brief history of how we got here. When the Irish Republic—previously known as the Irish Free State—left the Commonwealth in 1949, the British Government at the time allowed those who had been born in the Republic and had moved to Northern Ireland or elsewhere in the United Kingdom prior to that date to retain their British citizenship. That all changed after 1949: for people born in the Republic of Ireland after 1949, that right was taken away from them. Since 1949, many individuals who have lived here in the United Kingdom for many years, voted in UK elections and paid their taxes have found themselves disadvantaged by a bureaucratic and lengthy process.

Indeed, instead of an application fee of £100, there is a large fee to apply for citizenship of around £1,300. These costs put many people off. There is also a requirement for Irish citizens who have been resident here in the UK for many years then to pass a Life in the UK Test. This is a discriminatory process for those who have been living and working in Northern Ireland, in the United Kingdom, for years, who find when they go to apply for British citizenship that they have many hurdles to clear that simply do not exist for others. They look around and see that many with no prior connection to the United Kingdom or Ireland find the process of applying for a British passport much quicker and far less hassle. Those Irish-born citizens who have lived, worked and voted in Northern Ireland and paid their taxes for many years—for many decades in some cases—have every right to British citizenship, to be an equal part of this United Kingdom and to hold a British passport. I question the very logic of this process. It impacts many thousands of people, and I question the hurdles that have been introduced.

One point worth noting is that last February, the Court of Appeal found that similar fees of £1,000 for children to register as British citizens were unlawful and must be reconsidered by the Home Office. The current application process can be an increasingly long and frustrating one for many. It is especially challenging for those from lower-income backgrounds.

The process of British citizenship applications can take six months, but usually it takes much longer. It has several steps and can be a major hurdle to people who genuinely want to apply for British citizenship. As part of the process, applicants are required to pay £350 simply for the privilege of a decisions report, where somebody will tell them whether they can apply and whether they qualify for British citizenship. That will cost £350, whether it is a “yes” or a “no” answer. In many instances, another frustration exists whereby even if registered as a British citizen and successful, this does not automatically entitle an individual to a British passport; it entitles them only to apply for a British passport.

This is an insensitive situation for those who have paid taxes and national insurance contributions here for many years. Present census figures indicate that it affects approximately 40,000 people living in Northern Ireland, and this number is growing year on year. This is a huge number of people who cannot avail themselves of a British passport without navigating a long and winding process. It is quite clear that barriers exist in their route to citizenship.

Of course, this is against the backdrop of a process that has been simplified in respect of Irish passport applications for people living in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government reviewed the whole process of application in 2011 and came up with a simple way of applying for an Irish passport for those living on the island of Ireland. If you apply for an Irish passport, the application is around €80 in total. Anyone born or living in Northern Ireland, or anyone who has a parent or grandparent living on the island of Ireland, is automatically entitled to apply for Irish citizenship. They have thrown the net so wide. Applicants do not need to have been born on the island of Ireland if their father, mother or a grandparent was born there; they are entitled to an Irish passport and Irish citizenship. It is a simple and quick process. When you apply for an Irish passport, you can trace the whole process, and online applications are completed in approximately 20 working days. This is a sharp contrast to the long and costly process that some Irish-born people living in Northern Ireland face when applying for British citizenship.

There are ways to remove the financial and bureaucratic barriers in relation to this, if the will exists from government and the Home Office. There is a solution; a modest change in current practice could affect that group of 40,000 people. This is a sensitive matter that affects many and requires only a slight adjustment to be resolved. If an individual born in the Irish Republic after 1949 can prove that they have been living in Northern Ireland for between five and 10 years, have been working, voting and paying taxes and national insurance contributions, and are genuinely a part of that community, surely there ought to be a practical, sensible, streamlined way forward in this process.

I welcome the report published by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place last year and concur with its recommendations that these fees and this cumbersome process should be abolished. That committee has unionist, Conservative, Labour, Alliance and SDLP members, so there is unanimity in trying to resolve this issue not only in this House— I hope—but in the other.

The great irony is that when we hear people in the media and Members of this House and the other House talk about the Belfast agreement, they often say “parity of esteem”: two communities working together and recognising whether someone is Irish, British or both. The extraordinary situation I have outlined today goes directly against the grain of the Belfast agreement. Let us not forget that the agreement is held up because it recognises the birthright of people living in Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish, British or both. We are talking about people living in Northern Ireland for 30, 40 or 50 years, who were born five miles across the border in the Republic but have lived in Northern Ireland for virtually all their lives. To date, there has been a reluctance by government to act in relation to this. I welcome the opportunity to have this debate and trust that noble Lords will concur that this is an unfair process that could be remedied with minimal change.

A number of Members in the other place agree with the recommendations that the lengthy process required and the payment of associated fees should be waived in the applications of long-term residents of Northern Ireland who were born in the Republic of Ireland and wish to access their British identity by holding a British passport. Other representations have been made to the Home Office in respect of this issue, which goes back as far as 2004 or 2005, when it was raised in the House of Commons by my colleague Gregory Campbell. For whatever reason, the Government have refused to address it.

There should be real parity of esteem for people living in Northern Ireland who were born in the Republic. That is not the case. For many decades, the Government have failed to consider the history of the personal ties of thousands of people in this unique situation. This issue unites all backgrounds and traditions in Northern Ireland. That does not happen often, but on this issue, it is the case. I hope today’s debate will move us some way towards finally bringing a resolution.

Does the Minister agree that this issue must be addressed? Will he commit seriously to doing so? It directly affects a large number of taxpaying residents in our United Kingdom. It is so bad in Northern Ireland at the minute that the number of people applying for British passports has dropped by 30%, while the number applying for Irish passports has gone up by 27%.

My Lords, I am pleased to welcome the Minister to his post, and I know that he will bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to this House. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hay of Ballyore on securing this short, but nevertheless important, debate. This issue, I know, is incredibly personal for him, but, more importantly, for the many thousands of others living in Northern Ireland.

It is wrong that many Irish-born citizens, who have been living, working and paying their taxes in Northern Ireland and in the United Kingdom for years, have so many hurdles to go through before they can officially be recognised as British. They may have identified as British for years, or even for decades; but a costly, overly bureaucratic and uniquely discriminatory process has meant that, in the eyes of the law, they are technically not yet fully recognised as British citizens. Many of these people feel very strongly that holding a British passport should come naturally to them, as they have been law-abiding, taxpaying residents of this United Kingdom. As it stands, they feel, understandably, that they are being blocked in respect of this.

This process is set in stark contrast to the simple and easy way of applying for an Irish passport for those born and living in Northern Ireland, whereby some who have never been to, or lived in, the Republic of Ireland can quickly apply for and receive Irish passports. Indeed, all they have to do is simply go along to their local post office, ask for an Irish passport application, fill it out and attach a relatively small fee of 80 euros; and the passport, when determined, will be delivered to the home by the post in a relatively short period of time. This is all under the terms of the Belfast agreement.

Yet, those born a few miles across the border who are resident in the UK must pay £1,300 to register their citizenship, and then apply for a British passport. In terms of UK citizenship, it is clear that the people in this situation are still somewhat disadvantaged. Certain financial and bureaucratic barriers still exist that make it difficult for Irish-born residents of the United Kingdom to attain British citizenship or a British passport.

It is false to claim that changing this would have any impact whatever on the Belfast agreement. Indeed, for true parity of esteem to exist, those Irish-born citizens who live and work in Northern Ireland should be able to avail of a British passport in the same way as Northern Irish-born British citizens can avail of an Irish passport. It is a curious situation that we presently have two groups: those who were born in the Irish Republic and live in Northern Ireland, who cannot easily obtain British passports; and those who were born in, have relatives in or live in Northern Ireland, who can easily and cheaply obtain Irish passports.

Last year, the chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission called on the Government to fix this anomaly. He said categorically that,

“the Belfast agreement presented no impediment to slightly changing the law, if the UK Government decided to exercise its discretion to do it.”

If certain criteria were set, surely this could be resolved with relative ease.

I, too, welcome the findings in the report published by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place last year. I concur with the recommendations made in the report that the fees and the current unwieldly process should be abolished. Does the Minister agree with the findings, and will he commit to look at this further?

The Government should take the opportunity presented today to look seriously at a different approach to this unique situation, which has created an unfair process. The issue has been overlooked for too long. As has been alluded to, this unique situation, which has been outlined today by my noble friend Lord Hay, goes directly against the grain of the Belfast agreement. Routes to British citizenship for those who have spent the vast majority of their lives contributing to British life or communities, and the tax base in the United Kingdom, should not be fraught with difficulty and uncertainty.

It is right and proper that this issue should be addressed as a matter of urgency. It is wrong that successive Governments have failed so far to deal with this issue. I trust that today’s debate will help move us towards righting this wrong.

My Lords, I too welcome the Minister to his place this evening. I am sure that we all wish him well in his new role.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, which I congratulate my friend the noble Lord, Lord Hay, on securing. Your Lordships will be well aware of his long-held and understandably strong views on the matter before us tonight, which he has again outlined with the customary clarity we have come to expect from him. While we may be concentrating on his dilemma this evening, the anomaly applies equally to many more persons in a similar situation. My noble friend has been a passionate campaigner on the right of people living in Northern Ireland, but born in the Republic of Ireland, to hold a United Kingdom passport. This is an incredibly personal matter for him, and understandably so.

As the House will be aware, the noble Lord, Lord Hay, was first elected to Londonderry City Council more than four decades ago and, in 1993, served as the mayor. He was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998 in the wake of the Belfast agreement, and held the senior position of Speaker from 2007 to 2014. He is also a prominent member of both the Orange Order and the Apprentice Boys of Derry. I am proud to have marched with Willy Hay on many occasions down the years.

In short, and despite the occasional political differences he and I may have had, there are few Northern Ireland citizens more committed to their British identity than the noble Lord, Lord Hay. As such, it should be described not as an anomaly but as an abomination that he is not allowed or entitled to a British passport as of right.

The noble Lord mentioned the Good Friday agreement, as did the noble Lord, Lord Browne. Despite being on opposite sides of the debate in 1998, I am sure the noble Lords would agree that the Belfast agreement was a huge game-changer with regard to national identity. Under the provisions of that agreement, Northern Ireland residents can apply for an Irish passport, and many, from both political traditions, have chosen to do so. In contrast, people resident in Northern Ireland but born in the Republic of Ireland are not automatically entitled to a UK passport, even if, as in the case the noble Lord, they have lived there for many decades, paid their taxes there and, in his case, made a significant contribution to the public life of Northern Ireland.

Speaking in another place last week, the Northern Ireland Office Minister Steve Baker proudly described himself as “defiantly and ferociously pro-union”. However, he proceeded to describe his holding of a United Kingdom passport as

“an administrative thing, not a definition of who I am”.

He added:

“I gently make that point to illustrate that perhaps not all of us feel exactly the same way about our passport”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/10/22; col. 242WH.]

Mr Baker has not been in post for very long and, with the ministerial shuffles currently going on, he might not stay in place much longer. However, I respectfully suggest to your Lordships that this Minister’s understanding of the unionist mindset in Northern Ireland remains very much in the remedial stage.

It will shock this House to learn that, despite his fresh-faced youthfulness and boundless energy, my friend the noble Lord, Lord Hay, was born in fact in 1950. However, that makes him one of an estimated 40,000 people born in the Republic of Ireland after 1949 and resident in Northern Ireland who are currently expected to apply for naturalisation before being entitled to a UK passport. That application currently comes at a cost of £1,330 and the process includes a requirement to pass the Life in the UK test and attend a citizenship ceremony. For people such as my noble friend, who have lived in the Province for many decades, it is nothing short of demeaning that this should be the case.

I commend the work of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in another place which last year conducted an inquiry into the barriers to UK citizenship for Northern Ireland residents. The committee concluded that a bespoke solution was required for Irish citizens to gain UK citizenship, reflecting

“personal ties, relationships, geopolitical realities and movement of people”

between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. It also recommended that the current £1,330 application fee should be abolished, describing it as

“at worst indefensible, and at best unreasonable and excessive.”

I recognise the UK Government’s desire to better control our borders in a post-Brexit world, and I support this approach in principle. However, Northern Ireland is different, not least because of the 300-mile land border with our friends in the Republic, incorporating more than 280 crossing points. The issue we are debating today has nothing to do with Brexit. This is a matter which has been around for many years and which successive United Kingdom Governments have failed to deal with, hence the reason why my friend the noble Lord, Lord Hay, has rightly felt compelled to continue his high-profile campaign, not just for himself but on behalf of the many others in his position.

The United Kingdom is a welcoming country and I would argue, without fear of contradiction, that Northern Ireland is its most welcoming component part. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hay, I am a committed unionist, and unlike many UK government Ministers down the years I am proud to describe myself as a persuader for the union. I want as many people as possible living in Northern Ireland to support the British identity in Northern Ireland and to embrace it collectively. It is something to be cherished, of that there is no doubt, but also something which should be shared.

My friend the noble Lord, Lord Hay, is every bit as British as I am. He is every bit as British as everybody in this Room tonight. He and others like him should have that identity recognised in the same way as my British identity is recognised, and noble Lords’ British identity is recognised, by having the automatic right to hold a British passport. I commend my noble friend for bringing forward this important debate and I hope the Minister will finally signal a change of approach on behalf of His Majesty’s Government in his closing remarks. The noble Lord, Lord Hay, has my full support in what he is seeking to achieve.

My Lords, I also welcome the Minister to his place and look forward to hearing his maiden speech in response to this very important debate this evening. I wish him well in his future career as a Minister.

I can be very brief and say that I fully support the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, this evening. It seems to me quite wrong that someone who has lived in the United Kingdom for more than 50 years, and indeed has served as Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, should not be entitled to the same rights that I have in being able to apply for a United Kingdom passport.

Like other noble Lords this evening, I very much agree with the conclusions of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons on the need for a bespoke solution for people in Northern Ireland like the noble Lord, Lord Hay, who find themselves in this situation. We are not talking about very many people here; we are talking about approximately 40,000 people. I feel that it is such a small number that we need to look at it correctly, properly and in proportion.

The Government’s approach to this matter is unnecessarily inflexible and bureaucratic. I have two points on which I should like to receive clarification from the Minister in his concluding remarks. First, Ireland already enjoys special status with the United Kingdom for the common travel area and the EU settlement scheme. As I understand it, the Republic of Ireland is not considered a foreign country for the purpose of UK laws. Irish citizens in the UK are treated as if they have permanent immigration permission to remain from the date when they take up ordinary residence here. If the common travel area and the EU settlement scheme already mean that Irish citizens are treated differently in this country, why could that special status not be extended for the application process for UK passports?

My second point is simply about having generosity of spirit. As other noble Lords have mentioned this evening, there is a special relationship between these islands. We have common bonds, family connections and hundreds of years of shared history. My father was born in Enniskillen in County Fermanagh, so four years ago I was able to take advantage of that special relationship and apply for my Irish passport, for which I am very grateful. It seems somewhat inexplicable that we are not willing to demonstrate that generosity of spirit the other way around, for people born in Ireland who, like the noble Lord, Lord Hay, have lived in this country their entire working lives and would like a UK passport. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to both points this evening.

My Lords, I too welcome the Minister to his new position. I know that he is also a local councillor at Gedling Borough Council, so he will be well used to the cut and thrust of debate across the Chamber.

We are sympathetic to the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hay. We too believe that the Government seem unnecessarily inflexible on this matter. I shall also speak relatively briefly on some of the points raised today and in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. That cross-party committee, chaired of course by the Conservative Party, recommended, first, that the naturalisation fee charged to Irish applicants who wish to naturalise as British citizens be abolished altogether. Secondly, it recommended that the requirement for Irish citizens to pass a “Life in the UK” test be waived. Thirdly, it recommended that attendance at the citizenship ceremony should be optional.

Could the Minister explain to the House why each of those recommendations in turn is not being accepted by the Government, and why the Government have not taken the generality of the recommendations forward? On the question of the fee, which is £1,300, how much is the actual administrative cost to the Home Office and how much is a fee on top of that? What is the actual administrative cost of processing the applications? On the “Life in the UK” test, is there a point at which the Minister considers that it may not be necessary—after 20, 30 or 40 years? Surely, at some point that test would not be necessary. How many people do the Government estimate will be impacted? We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, that it may be 40,000, a figure the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, also referred to. Could the Minister confirm the figure?

Finally, in the Westminster Hall debate earlier this month, on 18 October, Steve Baker, the House of Commons Minister, who I understand is still in his place —I certainly welcome that—said that he would reflect on the issues raised. What does that reflection look like in practice? What further discussions have been had by Northern Ireland Ministers, and with which stakeholders, since the issue was raised in Parliament?

For some people this is a minor matter, but for the people concerned it is extremely important. An expression of good will could have ramifications on other, far more important matters, if I can put it like that, such as the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill that we were talking about last night. There is an opportunity here for a gesture of good will, and I hope that the Government will take up that opportunity.

My Lords, it is a great honour to be here to make the final contribution to this short debate today, and I thank you all for your kind words of welcome. As the newly appointed—and, I hope, as the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, has noted, remaining—Lords Minister of State in the Home Office, it falls to me to respond on behalf of His Majesty’s Government to this interesting debate. As your Lordships have all noted, this also happens to be my maiden speech.

First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, for tabling this Question for Short Debate. I am aware that this is an issue of personal relevance for the noble Lord and for many, and one about which, clearly, he and many others feel strongly.

If I may, I will now turn to the customary part of a maiden speech. I must thank noble Lords for the great welcome they have given me in this place, particularly my supporters, my noble friends Lord Sandhurst and Lord Sharpe of Epsom—the latter being my fellow Home Office Minister. I also thank Black Rod, the clerks, and especially the doorkeepers. Needless to say, I am very grateful to my wife Amelia, and my children Matilda and Archie, who have been very supportive of my sudden change of career, notwithstanding that this means that I am not on hand as often at Blidworth, in the County of Nottinghamshire, to help with their homework.

As a lifelong member of the voluntary party, I was until 7 October proud to serve as the Conservative Party’s East Midlands regional chairman and as deputy leader of the Conservative group on Gedling Borough Council, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has observed. I would like to thank all the hard-working Conservative volunteers for their help through the years and for their support.

It is with some trepidation that I come before your Lordships’ House. My professional background is as a barrister specialising in public law and human rights, and I have had the honour to have been led by some truly learned and impressive legal Members of your Lordships’ House: notably, my noble friend Lord Sandhurst, who led me in the very lengthy Kenyan emergency group litigation, which was one of the longest running civil trials in England; the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, who led me in a number of cases, notably one before the Supreme Court which concerned the assessment of damages for the violations of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights; and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, who led me in an important case concerning the imposition of “Do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation” notices and more recently in the litigation in relation to the memoranda between His Majesty’s Government and the Government of Rwanda, in which case the judgment is still awaited.

Having worked with these three noble Lords, I am sure your Lordships can now appreciate the trepidation to which I referred earlier. I shall be responsible in particular for the conduct of Home Office business before your Lordships’ House concerning migration and borders. This is a matter of special interest to me, not least since litigation concerning these issues has formed a significant part of my legal practice for the last 15 years, but also because it is one of the most difficult and sensitive areas of policy-making.

One pertinent family matter which I should perhaps mention in connection with this debate, is that, as with the noble Lord, Lord Hay, my mother is a citizen of the Republic of Ireland, having been born in County Cork.

That brings me neatly to the question before the House today. In summary, the answer comes in three parts. First, given the long history of these two islands and the close relationship between the Government of Ireland and His Majesty’s Government, Irish citizens have a special status in all of the United Kingdom. An Irish citizen residing in the United Kingdom is treated in the same way as a British national, even including, as the noble Lord demonstrates, in relation to entitlement to membership of this House.

Secondly, it is of course open to those of more than five years’ residence within the United Kingdom, such as the noble Lord, to apply for naturalisation as a British citizen should they wish. Thirdly, the present entitlements to nationality are compliant with the provisions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which provides that British nationality may be available for certain people born in Northern Ireland and not more broadly. By way of amplification, British citizens are defined by the British Nationality Act 1981. Only they are entitled to hold a British citizen passport as a matter of statute. This has been the case since the change of law in 1949, as the noble Lord, Lord Hay, referred to. The Government have no plans to reverse this position.

Article 1(vi) of the Belfast agreement states that it is the birthright of all people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British—or both, as they may so choose—and separately confirms that both Governments recognise that the people of Northern Ireland are able to hold British and Irish nationality. That agreement is very clear in its definition of “the people of Northern Ireland”. It defines them as

“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.”

People born in Ireland and living in Northern Ireland or the rest of the UK are consequently not deemed to be “people of Northern Ireland” for the purposes of that agreement, and they do not benefit from the agreement’s important birthright provisions on identity and citizenship. Turning to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, it is important to note that the birthrights on how a person of Northern Ireland chooses to self-identify and their citizenship are quite rightly separate and distinct.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, raised a point on the interpretation of the Belfast agreement. As noble Lords are well aware, the Belfast agreement was carefully negotiated and accepted in referenda in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There are no plans to reopen it to change the definition of a “person of Northern Ireland”; nor indeed would the UK Government be able to amend an international treaty. Not meeting the definition of a “person of Northern Ireland” under the agreement does not mean, however, that you cannot get British citizenship.

As noble Lords across the House have noted, there is already a residence-based route which Irish citizens born after 1 January 1949 can utilise to become British citizens should they choose to do so: they can, of course, apply to naturalise. When naturalising, an applicant need show only five years’ lawful residence. This is of course a fraction of the period that the noble Lord, Lord Hay, has been resident in Northern Ireland. If an individual opts not to become a British citizen when they first become eligible to do so, and so resides in the UK for far longer than the minimum time period needed, they will still need to meet the same statutory requirements as any other applicant. This is fair and applies to applicants of any nationality. The noble Lord, Lord Hay, noted that the process was, in his view, discriminatory. I do not accept that, because it is important when considering naturalisation that everyone is treated the same. Many people across the union of the United Kingdom have lived here for a long time and paid taxes, and there is no particular reason why they should be treated differently from those the noble Lord suggests should be.

Turning to the question of fees, fees for naturalisation have remained static in recent years. This followed a period of increases imposed as part of the Home Office’s move towards a user-pays model. Irish nationals are considered as settled in the UK from their date of arrival, which gives them an advantage over applicants of other nationalities, who need to hold indefinite leave to remain under the Immigration Rules before they can apply to naturalise. Irish nationals do not, therefore, have to pay ILR fees, which amount to £2,404 on some routes to indefinite leave to remain. On the point from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, about the breakdown of fees in respect of the cost of actually processing the application, I do not have that information to hand, and I will ensure that he is written to.

Turning to the knowledge of language and life in the UK test, mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Hay and Lord Rogan, individuals applying to naturalise across the piece are required to meet the Life in the UK test. A special provision, unsurprisingly, means that Irish nationals are exempt from the requirement to prove English language competency.

The Government’s view is that it is fair that all those who choose to take the step of becoming British citizens should meet the same core criteria, so citizenship can be awarded consistently. Citizenship carries important personal and legal consequences, and while I note the strength of feeling of the noble Lord, Lord Hay, on this issue, it cannot be assumed that just because someone is a long-term resident in Northern Ireland, or any other part of the United Kingdom, they wish to become a British citizen. We do not consider that automatically imposing British citizenship on Irish citizens resident in Northern Ireland, or indeed anywhere, without their opting to apply for it would be appropriate. We would not want to do anything that might jeopardise the unique relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Our existing naturalisation processes provide an adequate route for Irish citizens with a close and continuing connection to the UK to become British, should they wish to do so. That route can be accessed by Irish citizens with far less residence than that suggested by the noble Lord. There is no provision in British nationality law for the automatic acquisition of citizenship on the basis of long-term UK residence for anyone, and we do not consider it appropriate to single out Irish nationals born in Ireland who live in Northern Ireland for different treatment from those from other countries with which the UK has strong links, such as the Commonwealth or EEA countries.

It would be impracticable to operate a system where an applicant must demonstrate residence in the UK for five decades. It would raise logistical issues regarding acceptable documents, permitted absence periods and challenges in establishing evidential thresholds for historical residence. They are changes which would, in turn, inflate the costs of citizenship processes for all and potentially reduce the likelihood of a successful application.

While I appreciate the strength of feeling on this issue, and why the noble Lord, Lord Hay, has raised these questions, matters of identity and citizenship are complex and present difficult questions for our society. However, for the reasons I have given, it would not be right automatically to confer British passports on Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland in the manner the noble Lord has suggested.

I am aware that a number of direct questions were asked of me by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. I will reply to those by correspondence given the lack of time available.

House adjourned at 6.53 pm.