EU migrants to Britain and Irish people

There are some very careful phrased statements being made at the moment about EU migration into the UK. The wording is important, because there is a key difference between EU migrants and EU nationals working in the UK.

This difference is the Irish. While Ireland is in the EU and Irish people can correctly be described as EU nationals, in UK law, people born in Ireland are not EU migrants.

The Irish right to become resident in the UK was legislated in 1949 by the Ireland Act, predating EU membership for both countries by 23 years (Ireland and the UK both joined the EU in 1972). The law was passed because Ireland was declared a Republic in 1948, changing its relationship to the UK, which it left in 1922. Previous to this, there had been no need to legislate for Irish immigration as the Irish were subjects of the Crown and free to travel and settle.

There are a couple of key points about this:

  • Unlike other EU nationals, Irish people have full voting rights in the UK, including in the EU referendum.
  • Changes to EU freedom of movement rights in Ireland will not have any impact for people with Irish passports.

The 2011 Census showed that Irish people made up the second highest group of non-UK nationals in the UK, overtaken by Polish people for the first time. The census showed that there were 372,000 Irish nationals in the UK.

The point is – anyone who uses the figure of EU nationals working and/or living in the UK as part of the debate about the EU is deliberately using the higher figure inaccurately. The only relevant figure in the context of the referendum is the figure for EU migrants to the UK, which excludes nearly 400,000 people (high emigration from Ireland in the first years of this decade are likely to have increased the 2011 figure).


Author: Donnacha DeLong

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Donnacha DeLong is an NUJ activist, journalist and online communications consultant with more than 20 years' professional experience.

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