UK and Ireland sign deal to guarantee rights of citizens after Brexit

Deal secures rights conferred under common travel area and associated bilateral accords

The government has signed a Brexit side-deal with Ireland to guarantee Irish and British citizens retain special rights in each others countries in the event of no deal.

The Cabinet Office minister, David Lidington, and Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, said the deal reflected two years of work to ensure the existing common travel area (CTA) and associated bilateral agreements were secured whatever the outcome of Brexit negotiations.

“Our message to Irish citizens in the UK is that your rights will not change. You will still be able to move freely between Ireland, the UK and the islands,” said Lidington. “You will still be able to work, study, draw your pension and access social security and public services in the UK. Above all, you will be welcome. And we welcome the similar commitment the government of Ireland makes to British citizens in Ireland.”

The agreement was detailed in a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed before a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference on Wednesday afternoon.

Lidington said the deal reflected the “longstanding, cherished set of arrangements” that already existed. It is understood the MoU is an undertaking by both sides to take the “necessary legal and administrative steps” to ensure the status quo for all travel, employment and social security rights.

It confirms Irish nationals will continue to be able to vote in all elections in the UK and stand for public office, unlike other EU citizens who cannot vote in general elections. The voting arrangement is reciprocated in Ireland for British nationals settled in the country.

It means there will be reciprocal access to education at all levels with home tuition fee loans and maintenance support for students going to university in each state.

In the area of social security, it means that citizens can work in either country and have access to social security benefits such as pensions no matter which country they live or retire in.

Coveney said the deal was an “important moment” between the two countries. “The CTA has provided rights and privileges to Irish and British citizens for nearly a century. However, it has not before been formalised in this way,” he said.

Bill Foster, the managing director of the Irish branch of the immigration law firm Fragomen, said the deal was an “incredibly welcome development” as it created a clear foundation to guarantee the rights of British and Irish nationals in each other’s country, which until now had been accepted based on historical understanding but were not always clear in law.

The agreement will benefit the estimated 300,000 Britons living in Ireland and about 350,000 Irish people in the UK.

Bernard Ryan, a professor of migration law at Leicester University, raised concerns as far back as 2016, arguing that bilateral statements might not have much legal value.

An international treaty on mutual rights would be the best outcome, he said, but added: “A public MoU is worthwhile, too, because it gives transparency and political guarantees.”

The CTA has its roots in a deal agreed after Ireland gained independence from the UK in the 1920s and was further cemented through a series of laws including the Ireland Act 1949, which states Ireland “is not a foreign country for the purposes of any law in force in any part of the United Kingdom”.