Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, Simon Murray, has dismissed the former Speaker of the Assembly’s claim that forcing Unionists to pay a hefty £1,300 citizenship fee and taking a UK living test in order to obtain British citizenship if they were born in the 26 counties after Ireland left the British Commonwealth is unfair.
The senior DUP official, born in Milford in 1950, raised the issue in the UK House of Lords.
He sketched the context of a situation that has applied to him and many others in the East Donegal and Laggan region for over 70 years.
“I’ll give you a brief history of how we got here. When the Republic of Ireland – formerly known as the Irish Free State – left the Commonwealth in 1949, the then British government allowed those born in the Republic to move to Northern Ireland or elsewhere in the UK before that date. retain their British citizenship.
“Everything changed after 1949: for people born in the Republic of Ireland after 1949, that right was taken away. Since 1949, many people who have lived here in the UK for many years, have voted in UK elections and paid their taxes found themselves disadvantaged by a bureaucratic and lengthy process,” he explained.
Steve Baker tells Gregory Campbell that Irish trade unionists born after 1949 are “not British…
The senior DUP told his colleagues he thinks it is unfair that people in this situation have to pay extremely high fees to obtain passports.
“Instead of a £100 application fee, there is a hefty fee to apply for citizenship of around £1,300.
“These costs put a lot of people off. There is also a requirement for Irish citizens who have been resident here in the UK for many years and then take a Life in the UK test.
“This is a discriminatory process for those who have lived and worked in Northern Ireland, UK, for years, who find when they go to apply for UK citizenship that they have many barriers to cross that simply do not exist for others. .
“They look around and see that a lot of people with no prior connection to the UK or Ireland find the UK passport application process much quicker and much less complicated.”
The former DUP mayor of Derry estimated around 40,000 people in the north are affected by the anomaly.
And he welcomed the much simpler and less restrictive approach the Irish government has taken to citizenship.
“The Irish Government overhauled the entire application process in 2011 and came up with an easy way to apply for an Irish passport for those living on the island of Ireland.
“If you are applying for an Irish passport, the application is approximately €80 in total. Anyone born or living in Northern Ireland, or anyone with a parent or grandparent living on the island of Ireland, automatically has the right to apply for Irish citizenship.
“They have cast such a wide net. Applicants do not need to have been born on the island of Ireland if their father, mother or grandparent was born there; they are entitled to an Irish passport and Irish citizenship is a simple and quick process.
“When applying for an Irish passport you can follow the whole process and online applications are completed in around 20 working days,” he said.
Just weeks after Steve Baker told DUP MP Gregory Campbell that Irish trade unionists born after 1949 are ‘not British citizens and must naturalize’, Murray, an assistant Home Secretary, reiterated that position.
He pointed out that “it is of course possible for those who have been resident in the UK for more than five years, such as the noble Lord, to apply for naturalization as a British citizen if they wish” and that “the British citizens are defined by the British Nationality Act 1981”.
“Only they are entitled to hold a British citizen’s passport under the law. This has been the case since the change of law in 1949, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hay. The government has not intend to reverse that position,” he said.
The minister said he accepts that the five-year legal residency period is only a fraction of the length of time Willie Hay has lived on the east bank of the River Foyle. However, he said the same rules apply nonetheless.
“If an individual chooses not to become a British citizen when they first become eligible, and therefore resides in the UK for much longer than the minimum period necessary, they will still have to meet the same legal requirements as any another candidate.
“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 this, as it is important, when considering examination of naturalization, that everyone is treated in the same way. .
“Many people across the union of the United Kingdom have lived here for a long time and have paid tax, and there is no particular reason why they should be treated any differently than the noble Lord suggests,” a- he declared.
Murray went on to say he understood why there were strong feelings among Donegal-born Unionists.
“While I appreciate the strength of feeling on this issue and why the noble Lord, Lord Hay, has raised these issues, issues of identity and citizenship are complex and present difficult questions for our society.
“However, for the reasons I have given, it would not be fair to automatically confer British passports on Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland in the manner suggested by the noble Lord,” he said.