Brexit Angst Sends Northern Ireland Residents Scrambling for Irish Passports

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Brexit has sparked a scramble for Irish passports by British citizens desperate to avoid eviction from the European Union, and Cahal McLaughlin’s family is no exception.

“My three children were born and raised in the London area to a British mother and all three have a British passport,” said McLaughlin, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast.

However, since British voters backed an exit from the European Union in a 2016 referendum, all his children are contemplating becoming Irish passport-holders like their father.

“In fact, my 18-year-old already has one, and I think my two other ones might consider it,” he said in an interview in Crescent Arts Cafe, a quaint hub for intellectuals on the outskirts of the Queen’s University campus. “And that is the pattern. That is what’s happening.”

McLaughlin grew up in the Irish Republic acutely aware of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and his research focuses on political prisoners held during the British-ruled province’s conflict.

Without an Irish passport, his children would face losing their E.U. privileges, which include the freedom of mobility between E.U. states and the ability to settle and work in these states with ease.

It’s a struggle playing out over the world for British people with rights to Irish passports that seemed far less important 20 years ago when Northern Ireland’s peace deal was signed and people on both sides of the Irish border were in the European Union. Now Irish embassies are struggling to keep up with the demand as applications flood in even from Northern Ireland-born unionists who have traditionally seen themselves as British but whose rights to an Irish passport are protected by the peace deal.

“They were inundated and overwhelmed,” McLaughlin said, adding that “the number is still increasing.”

In 2017, Northern Ireland and UK citizens submitted a record number of passport applications, according to the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The embassy issued 779,000 Irish passports worldwide that year.

More than 160,000 inhabitants in Northern Ireland and the U.K. combined applied for an Irish passport. This comes in response to the controversial Brexit vote in 2016 where the United Kingdom opted to leave the European Union rather than remain a member. Issues of immigration and trade prompted popular dissent against the E.U. in Great Britain.

Popular opinion in Northern Ireland has differed from mainland U.K. Here, Brexit has been followed by concerns of economic impacts, trade across the border and human rights.

Following the vote in 2016, the Irish Embassy in London in one day received 4,000 citizenship applications and post offices ran out of forms. This, in comparison with the customary 200 applications, threatened to overwhelm the embassy.

The irony of members of Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority seeking Irish passports after a century of opposing joining the Irish Republic is not lost on McLaughlin. 34 percent of Unionist voted to stay inside the European Union, mostly for economic reasons.

“The unionists were split,” McLaughlin said. “The DUP, the largest party, voted for Brexit, but the official unionists, the more middle class, voted to remain, and some of them quite openly said, ‘I am going for an Irish passport.’”

The incentive is the prospect of maintaining EU citizenship with all the real and aspirational freedoms that entails. Those with an Irish passport will still maintain the option to move about Europe freely. Options to work and settle in a member state were also agreed upon by the UK and EU in December 2017. British passport holders, even with a good deal in place, will still be stopped for checking at European borders.
“I do not think that you will have to fill out a visa, but who knows. This is the real problem, is that no one knows,” McLaughlin said.
“We are no clearer to knowing what the British government wants now than six months ago.”
In 2017, the number of passport applications in Northern Ireland increased by 20 percent compared to 2016, while the number in the rest of the UK increased by 28 percent.
Anyone with a parent or grandparent born in Ireland is entitled to claim Irish citizenship. Additionally, those born in Northern Ireland, under the stipulations of the Good Friday Agreement, are entitled to Irish or British passports, or both.
The Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement
The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, ended the “Troubles” of Northern Ireland. The peace deal drew a line under a 30-year period of low intensity violence and political stagnation between Protestants loyal to British rule and Catholics who leaned towards Irish unification.
Northern Ireland was established in May 1921 under the Government of Ireland Act lobbied for by Unionists. It comprises six northeastern counties in the province of Ulster, leaving out the three largest majority Catholic, Irish nationalist counties of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. Confirming the separation at the end of the Irish War of Independence in 1921, Northern Ireland functioned as a self-governing offshoot of the United Kingdom until direct rule from London was introduced in 1972.
During this 50-year period, Catholics complained of discrimination as gerrymandering weakened their vote and diluted their representation in an overwhelmingly Protestant government. Grievances in regards to employment and special housing allocations fell on deaf ears, with the final straw being the amendment to the  Special Powers Act  in 1972 which allowed for detention without trial.
Attempts at reform failed as protests increased in number and civil rights movements turned into armed conflicts in 1972. On January 30 that year, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” British forces killed 14 young men protesting internment without trial, ushering in the 30-year conflict which killed over 3,600 people.
In this time, the connecting border was passable only at approved army checkpoints. Paramilitary violence and the heavy military presence disrupted the lives of civilians in the area. Shootings and bombings became a daily occurrence. It was not until the signing of the peace deal that the border became loose and served as a means of connecting the respective political parties.
Brexit Exposes Northern Irish Fragility
One of the key components of the agreement was the ability of the citizens of Northern Ireland to have the freedom to choose their citizenship and which passport to hold.
During the conflict, class issues were evident. Unofficially, Catholic republicans were viewed as second-class citizens with 25.5 percent being unemployed in 1981. Brexit is poised to reverse that as Catholics have majority Irish passports in Northern Ireland and will continue to have EU privileges after Brexit.
Those who remain staunch Loyalists are not claiming their right to an Irish passport. This will prevent them from claiming EU benefits, such as the freedom to easily settle and work in member states, unlike those willing to claim Irish citizenship.
Historically, these passports served as a distinguishing factor between Loyalists, who were predominantly Protestant, and Republicans, who were predominantly Catholic. How one determined their passport identification depended in part on ideological separations.
There’s no certainty that this is how thing will transpire, but it still has the potential to shake things up. “The very fact that Brexit brings out… questions [about self-identification] is in itself worrying and threatening to the fragile social situation in Northern Ireland,” researcher Milena Koramova of the Center for Cross Border studies said.
In Koramova’s view, the British government is not paying the same amount of attention to the Unionists who live in Northern Ireland as it did during the “Troubles.” Leading unionist Ian Paisley Jr. urged those in Northern Ireland who identified as British to obtain a second passport so as to not lose EU benefits. “My advice is if you are entitled to a second passport then take one,” he said to a voter in a tweet highlighted by The Guardian.
Now, due to Brexit, a substantial portion of those claiming Irish passports are focused on practicality. Those with Irish citizenships will continue to enjoy the benefits of the European Union. In contrast, those in Northern Ireland who only maintain British citizenship will be entirely dependent on the UK government to supplement what is lost for them in the Brexit transition.
Passports and border concerns
Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have made leaps and bounds in establishing a political relationship despite clear ideological differences. However, the implementation of Brexit lends itself to recreating past separation between the states with the potential of a hard border.
While the majority of participating parties do not want a “hard” border established, the need to institute formal customs between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is expected.
This challenges the passport section in the Good Friday Agreement. If a formal hard border is created, identifications checks will be required for passage across state lines. Businesses, officials, and citizens from both communities will no longer experience the flexibility provided by the current border, impacting trade, economics, and government relations across the island.
“Your movement would be restricted,” said John McGuinness, a farmer from small town Castleblaney located on the border of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. “There would be border security, and when you have border security you will have searches, you will have traffic jams, and you will have probably more documentation needed to carry your goods backwards and forwards across the border. So, it will be time consuming, and it will be an inconvenience to the people that are involved.”
When asked if he had any idea of how to deal with Brexit, he was nonchalant. “No plans whatsoever. No, we’ll just — we’ll wait and see what takes place.”
While McGuinness’s remarks do not suggest a return to violence, they do illustrate a lack of preparation for the coming changes.
“At the moment, neither unionists or nationalists are preparing their constituencies for a compromise – the same thing on the British and Irish side as well,” Katy Hayward, a political sociologist at Queen’s, was quoted as saying in an April 10 article by Yasmeen Serhan at The Atlantic. “This would be my biggest worry on the impact of Brexit. We’re not prepared for it in any sense whatsoever,” she said.
McGuinness echoed this sentiment. “You know, we’re listening to conflicting stories on both sides,” he said. “As of yet, until it’s up and running and we know exactly what’s involved, we are not going to know what the pitfalls are.”