Simon Murray tells Willie Hay it is not ‘discriminatory’ to make Donegal unionists pay £1,300 and take Britishness tests for British Passports

A British minister has told Willie Hay he does not accept it is ‘discriminatory’ to force Unionists born in the 26 counties after 1949 to pay high fees and to take Britishness tests in order to obtain British Passports.

Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Department, Simon Murray, rejected the former Assembly Speaker’s contention that making Unionists pay a hefty £1,300 citizenship fee and to pass a Life in the United Kingdom Test in order to secure British citizenship if they were born in the 26 counties after Ireland left the British Commonwealth is unfair.

The senior DUP figure who was born in Milford in 1950 raised the matter in the British House of Lords.

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He sketched the background to a situation which has applied to him and many others from the East Donegal and Laggan area for over 70 years.

Willie Hay

“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,” he explained.

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The DUP grandee told his fellow peers he believed it was unjust that people in this situation were being forced to pay extremely high fees to obtain passports.

“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.

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"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.”

The former DUP mayor of Derry estimated approximately 40,000 people in the north are affected by the anomaly.

And he praised the much simpler and less restrictive approach taken by the Irish government on citizenship.

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“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,” he said.

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Just weeks after Steve Baker told DUP MP Gregory Campbell that Irish unionists born after 1949 are ‘not British citizens and must naturalise’, Murray, a junior minister, at the Home Office, reiterated that position.

He pointed out that ‘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’ and that ‘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,” he stated.

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The minister said he accepted that the five years’ lawful residence period is but a fraction of the length of time Willie Hay has been living on the east bank of the River Foyle. However, he said the same rules apply nonetheless.

"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,” he said.

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Murray went on to state that 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 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,” he said.