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Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is getting increasingly difficult for people in Northern Ireland to feel that they are being governed by people who understand what is happening there. Surely this matter should have been discussed by the parliamentary representatives of Northern Ireland, who do not get the chance to have such discussions now that there is no devolved Government or any other way of doing so. This is quite wrong, and I hope that you agree, Mr. Speaker, that the Secretary of State should have come to this House to make these announcements.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP):
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not bordering on contempt of this House for the Secretary of State to have asked his Ministers to invite Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly to briefings on the announcements that he has made today, rather than coming to this Chamber? Instead, he slinks away to an hotel to make his statement.
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Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) for giving me notice of his point of order. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has indeed made four written statements to the House today on the structure of local government in Northern Ireland. I have no doubt that there will be an opportunity to discuss the proposals in the House. I also note that some of the proposed changes will require legislation, so there will be opportunities for the House to consider them in due course.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have been expecting delivery later this week of the National Audit Office's annual report on the 20 largest defence projectsa report that always commands widespread public interest. To my surprise, this afternoon the Press Association carries a story that the Minister responsible for defence procurement, Lord Drayson, has held a press briefing providing a partial interpretation of the forthcoming NAO report. I have checked with the Public Accounts Committee, which tells me that the report is embargoed until one minute past midnight on Friday.
I understand that the Ministry of Defence claims that the timing of today's press briefing and the NAO report is coincidental. Even if we allow for Lord Drayson's relative inexperience of the courtesies of parliamentary procedure, is it not unacceptable that a Department of State should be engaged in what clearly amounts to a naked attempt to pre-empt the report of a universally respected and impartial public agency?
As I am sure you will appreciate, Mr. Speaker, the Opposition are always handicapped by having sight of public documents of this kind only 24 hours before publication. Is it not a grave discourtesy to us and, indeed, to all Members with an interest in these matters, that the Ministry of Defence has sought to use its privileged position to taint and pre-empt public reaction to the forthcoming NAO report? If you agree with me, Mr. Speaker, can you advise me on what we might do about it?
Obviously I am not aware of the circumstances surrounding the matter raised by the hon. Member for Aldershot. This is the first time that it has come to my attention. However, I would be very angry indeed if information required for the House went first to journalists. I am not happy with that, and I condemn such an action. The best advice that I can give the hon. Gentleman is that he should allow me to investigate the matter. My officials will look into it this afternoon and will get in touch with the appropriate Minister.
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Mr. Howarth: Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am extremely grateful to you, as, I am sure, is the whole House. I am sorry that I could not give you notice of the matter earlier, but it came to my attention only about an hour ago. I thank you warmly for, as ever, seeking to protect the interests of Members.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Let me say from the Back Benches that I am extremely grateful for your response to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). The whole matter is tremendously important to some of us whose constituencies contain defence industries. Four trade unionists from BAE Systems visited me at the House today. Please will you use your best officesI know that you willto ensure that statements of importance to Members are made in the House and not outside?
The Bill will offer people born in the Republic of Ireland after 1949 who have associations with the United Kingdom through residency some of the rights that are currently given to those born before 1949. It will provide political, practical and symbolic recognition of those affected and will allow them to join and to be treated in all other regards as British subjects. That end is achieved by amending the British Nationality Act 1981. There will be a requirement that anyone applying to register as a British subject under the provision swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown, as provided in schedule 5 of the 1981 Act.
It is not easy to estimate the number of people who would wish to avail themselves of that scheme, but the 2001 census for Northern Ireland provides some evidence. Its figures show that the number of people born in the Republic of Ireland, but now resident in Northern Ireland, is around 40,000, though it does not indicate how many of them were born before 1949 or give any indication of the number who might wish to avail themselves of the provision. In the Northern Ireland Westminster parliamentary constituencies, the number of people born in the Republic of Ireland ranges significantly, from less than 1,000 in one instance to more than 5,000 at the other extreme.
There is a long history to these matters, Mr. Speaker, dating way back to the Act of Union 1801 and perhaps long before it. For present purposes, Members will be content to note that I will confine myself to the last century in general and the last 50 years or so in particular. I will point out that there is already a scheme in place for those people in this position who were born before 1949.
The law as it stands makes provision for anyone born before 1949 in the Republic of Ireland with associations with the UKas defined in the 1981 Actto become a British subject. Indeed, we have the ludicrous position whereby those born in Northern Ireland who consider themselves Irish, though they have never lived in the Irish Republic or voted in an Irish election or paid Irish taxes, can avail themselves of an Irish passport by a straightforward process of completing an application form and enclosing the fee, yet those born a few miles across the border in the Republic since 1949, having lived in the UK for many years, having voted in UK elections and having paid UK taxes, cannot avail themselves of a British passport without going through the cumbersome procedure of applying for what is known as naturalisation.
It is impossible to understand the issue without fully appreciating the relationships between all the people who live within the British Isles. Just a few weeks ago, we remembered those who have died in various conflicts, including the first world war. At that time, many born in what is now the Republic of Ireland fought as British soldiers in the British Army. As I have already explained, the law reflects their circumstances,
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as they were obviously born before 1949. It is those born after that arbitrary date, some of whom were descendants of those soldiers, who are denied the same option.
The last few decades have inevitably focused on events in Northern Ireland and the history of our Province. There has not been much focus on the history of the Republic of Ireland since partition. One is inevitably driven to generalities when dealing with such matters. For example, in the 1920s, the drawing of the boundary between what is now Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was not without contention. Some areas with a significant Protestant or Unionist population were not included in Northern Ireland. The reduction in the number of Protestants living in the Republic from 1921 to today is also a matter of historical fact.
The reasons why that has been the case are a matter for another day, but quite a number of those people have moved to Northern Ireland. As I have explained, if those who moved were born before 1949, they are already catered for, but many born in the Republic of Ireland after that date will be able to benefit from the Bill. These people, aged 56 and under, are indistinguishable in every respect from other British citizens in Northern Irelandexcept in their formal nationality. As a result, they travel on Irish passports and are legally regarded as citizens of the Republic of Ireland, despite many of them regarding themselves as British. To qualify for British citizenship on another basisif such is available to themthey are required to undergo the lengthy process that I outlined earlier.
I mention only in passing the approach taken by the Republic of Ireland to those who are born in Northern Ireland. Under article 1(vi) of the British-Irish agreementthe treaty section of the Belfast agreementanyone born in Northern Ireland has the right to identify themselves as Irish or British or both, as they so choose; it is a matter for them. They also have the right to be regarded as Irish citizens. This allows me, living in Northern Ireland, to regard myself as an Irish citizen if I so wish, yet some of my neighboursthose born, for example, in County Donegal in the 1950s and 1960s, but who have lived in the United Kingdom for almost all their livescannot currently become British subjects without some inconvenience and additional cost.
I do not believe it too much of an assumption to accept that the majority of those in Northern Ireland who would wish to benefit from this change in legislation are from the Unionist tradition, but it would of course be open to all to whom it applied. None the less, since I raised this issue publicly in Northern Ireland, there has been no opposition to the provisions. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could oppose this anomaly's being resolved.
This Bill is important not just in a symbolic, but in a very practical, way. It is important to these individuals that they be recognised as subjects in the country in which they live, contribute, vote and pay taxes.
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