The immigration rules have changed so that all Northern Irish citizens can be united with their non-EEA family members via the EU Settlement Scheme.
This move is of historic significance, as it finally brings the Northern Ireland immigration rules in line with the Good Friday Agreement (Belfast Agreement), which provides Northern Irish citizens to identify as Irish, British or both.
The rules were changed after the US-born husband of Northern Irish citizen Emma De Souza had his EU Settlement Scheme application rejected by the Home Office.
The EU Settlement Scheme was put in place to enable EU nationals to continue living and working in the UK post-Brexit. Under the terms of the scheme, EU nationals can apply on behalf of their non-EEA family members so that they can join them in the UK.
Because the EU Settlement Scheme is aimed solely at EU nationals and their family members, British citizens cannot use the scheme to bring their non-EEA family members to the UK. Instead, a Family Visa must be applied for, the eligibility criteria of which is harder to satisfy.
As permitted by the Good Friday Agreement, Mrs De Souza was born in Northern Ireland but identifies as an Irish citizen. Despite never having held a British passport, her husband’s EU Settlement Scheme application was unsuccessful due to the Home Office classing her as a British citizen and therefore being unable to apply.
She was instead told to either renounce her British citizenship and pay a fee to apply as an Irish citizen, or apply for a UK Spouse Visa.
In response, Mrs De Souza pointed out that because she had never chosen to recognise her British citizenship, she had nothing to renounce.
The Home Office’s rejection of Mrs De Souza’s rejection shone a light on how the UK government prevents Northern Irish citizens from choosing to exercise their Irish citizenship rights.
After both extensive campaigning and taking legal action against the Home Office’s decision, Mrs De Souza finally achieved a positive result.
Thursday the 14th of May saw the UK government announce that family members of British or dual Irish-British citizens from Northern Ireland are permitted to apply for UK status via the EU Settlement Scheme.
This follows an announcement in January of this year, which saw the government pledge to ‘change the rules governing how the people of Northern Ireland bring their family members to the UK’ as part of the return to power-sharing in the Northern Irish parliament.
However, it is important to note that the new rules will not be effective until the 24th of August 2020. Further to this, the arrangements are time-limited, and are only legally binding until the EU Settlement scheme closes next June.
Mrs De Souza has expressed concern at this, as the rights set out by the Good Friday Agreement need to be permanently recognised. Speaking to the BBC, she said:
“What these changes don’t do is address the wider citizenship and identity issues that our case has uncovered”
“The government has conceded on the principle by bringing forth these changes, we now need them to go the extra mile and fulfil their obligations to the people of Northern Ireland.”
“Without addressing the wider gap in legislation these changes, whilst enormously welcomed, may well be no more than a sticking plaster.”
Mrs De Souza’s case has highlighted the confusion caused by the fact that Northern Irish citizens can identify as Irish, British or both. The Home Office’s rejection of the EU Settlement Scheme application was borne out of a belief that, for immigration purposes, a person born in Northern Ireland has British citizenship only.