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British nationality law and the Republic of Ireland


British nationality law and the Republic of Ireland

This article is about British nationality law with respect of citizens of Ireland, which is referred to in British nationality law as the "Republic of Ireland" and was previously referred to as "Eire" between 1937 and 1949 and as the Irish Free State between 1922 and 1937. Irish nationality law is not covered.


  • British subjects 1
  • British subjects with local Irish nationality 2
  • Passport issue 3
  • Other developments in 1935–1949 4
  • British Nationality Act 1948 5
  • Ireland Act 1949 6
  • British Nationality Act 1981 7
  • Access to British citizenship for Irish citizens 8
  • British subject passports 9
  • Statistics 10
  • British born children of Irish citizens 11
  • See also 12
  • Footnotes 13

British subjects

When the Irish Free State left the United Kingdom in 1922, the existing status of "British subject" was, from the point of view of British nationality law, left unaffected. Broadly speaking, this was because, as a dominion within the British Commonwealth, the Irish Free State continued to form part of "His Majesty's Dominions".

This British theory of "British subject" nationality was not fully shared by the Irish and as early as the 1920s was discussed in Ireland in the following terms:

The meaning of 'citizenship [in the Constitution of the Irish Free State, which was approved by the British] is defined only to the extent of saying that the citizen shall 'within the limits of the jurisdiction of the Irish Free State enjoy the privileges and be subject to the obligations of such citizenship'. There appears to be here a suggestion that the status of citizen of the Irish Free State carries no privileges or obligations outside the jurisdiction of the Irish Free State: that the Irish Free State citizen when he goes to France has no 'privileges or obligations' as such. This may not have been intended at all: on the other hand it may have been deliberately inserted in pursuance of a British theory that the citizen of any Dominion, once he gets outside his Dominion, must rely for support on his 'Imperial' status as a 'British Subject'[1]

British subjects with local Irish nationality

According to Article 3 of the 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State, "Every person, without distinction of sex, domiciled in the area of the jurisdiction of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) at the time of the coming into operation of this Constitution who was born in Ireland or either of whose parents was born in Ireland or who has been ordinarily resident in the area of the jurisdiction of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) for not less than seven years, is a citizen of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) and shall within the limits of the jurisdiction of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) enjoy the privileges and be subject to the obligations of such citizenship [...]". The same Article also stated that "the conditions governing the future acquisition and termination of citizenship in the Irish Free State" were to be "determined by law". However, no such law was passed until 1935.

From the British perspective, Free State citizenship was only enjoyed by its holders "within the limits of the [Free State's] jurisdiction". There were some remarkable manifestations of the British perspective in this matter including in the Parkes case: in Murray v. Parkes (1942), the King's Bench Divisional Court decreed that Roscommon-born Michael Murray, then aged 33 and living in Leicester was a "British subject" and therefore legitimately subject to conscription into the British Army. The Irish Times reported on 2 April 1942 that the Court held that:[2]

The position has been commented on in the following terms:[3]

Passport issue

The Free State government did not consider that the status of "British subject" was an appropriate description for its citizens. This caused difficulties between the British and Irish governments over the wording of Free State passports, which used the description "Citizen of the Irish Free State and of the British Commonwealth of Nations". One practical effect was that the Foreign Office refused to provide consular assistance to Free State citizens unless they held an alternative passport describing the holder as a "British subject".

Other developments in 1935–1949

In 1933 the Fianna Fáil party, led by Éamon de Valera, won the Irish general election, and began to put forward a series of reforms intended to more strongly assert Irish independence, including the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1935, which received the royal assent on 10 April 1935. This was the first example of a Commonwealth member country passing legislation to create its own citizenship distinct from the status of "British subject", and it expressly repealed (s. 33) both the British nationality legislation and common law carried over at independence.

When the Free State was reconstituted as "Ireland" in 1937, following the enactment of the Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hÉireann), domestic Irish nationality law was left unchanged. In UK law, references to the Free State were soon replaced with "Eire", the Irish language name for "Ireland".

British nationality law continued to recognise citizens of Ireland/Eire as holding the status of British subjects until the British Nationality Act 1948 came into force on 1 January 1949.

British Nationality Act 1948

Following Canada's enactment of the Canadian Citizenship Act 1946 (in force from 1 January 1947), the Commonwealth Heads of Government agreed that every member state, except Ireland which did not participate at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, would enact its own citizenship law while retaining the common status of British subject. The British Parliament passed the British Nationality Act 1948, which created the status of citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies. Because of Ireland's impending departure from the Commonwealth (on 18 April 1949), special provision was made for the retention by certain Irish citizens of the status of British subject without being citizens of a Commonwealth member state.

As a result, Irish citizens ("citizens of Eire") lost British-subject status automatically on 1 January 1949 if they did not acquire citizenship of the UK & Colonies or that of another Commonwealth country, notwithstanding that Ireland did not cease to be one of His Majesty's dominions until 18 April 1949.[4]

However, section 2 of the Act allowed certain Irish citizens who were British subjects before 1949 to apply at any time to the Secretary of State to remain British subjects. Applications had to be based on:

No provision was made for the retention of British nationality by Irish citizens born in the Republic of Ireland after 1948. British subject status, as distinct from citizenship of the UK & Colonies, was not transmissible by descent.

For the purpose of the 1948 act, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was defined on its post-1922 borders. Hence, birth in the Republic of Ireland before 1922 was not sufficient in itself to confer citizenship of the UK & Colonies. Persons born in the Republic of Ireland before 1949 became Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies by descent in British law on 1 January 1949 if they had a father born in the United Kingdom or a place that was a colony at that date (provided father was married to the person's mother).

In common with those from the Commonwealth, Irish citizens resident in the United Kingdom, whether they held British subject status or not, were entitled to apply for registration as a Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies after one year's residence, by the 1970s increased to five years.

Ireland Act 1949

The United Kingdom's Ireland Act 1949 came into force on 18 April 1949 and recognised the end of the Irish state's status as a British dominion, which had been effected under the Irish Republic of Ireland Act 1948 brought into force in 1949. The 1949 Act was also used by the United Kingdom to "repair an omission in the British Nationality Act, 1948".[5] The 1948 Act included provisions dealing specifically with the position of "a person who was a British subject and a citizen of Eire on 31st December, 1948".[6] Because of this, how the British law would apply was dependent on a question of Irish law, namely, who was a "citizen of Eire"? The UK Government seriously misunderstood the position under Irish law. The UK Secretary of State for Home Affairs explained that:[7]

"[w]hen British Nationality Act was passed the United Kingdom did not know that a person who was born in Southern Ireland of a Southern Irish father and on 6th December, 1922, was domiciled in Northern Ireland was regarded as a citizen of Eire under Eire law. They therefore considered that such a person became a United Kingdom citizen on 1st January, 1949 [in accordance with the British Nationality Act]".

The impact of this was that many people in Northern Ireland were in theory deprived of a British citizenship status they would otherwise have enjoyed but for Irish law. This was an unintended consequence of the British Nationality Act.

The Secretary of State also explained the background to the mistake. He reported that under Irish law the question of who was a "citizen of Eire" was in part, dependent on whether a person was "domiciled in the Irish Free State on 6th December, 1922".[8] In this regard he noted:[9]

"The important date to bear in mind there is 6th December, 1922, for that was the date...the Irish Free State was constituted, and as constituted on 6th December, 1922, it consisted of the 32 counties with the six counties which now form Northern Ireland having the right to vote themselves out. They did so vote themselves out on 7th December, but on 6th December, 1922, the whole of Ireland, the 32 counties, was the Irish Free State and it was not until 7th December, the next day, the six counties having voted themselves out, that the Irish Free State became confined to the 26 counties. Therefore, the Eire law, by inserting the date 6th December, 1922, and attaching to that the domicile, meant that anybody domiciled inside the island of Ireland on 6th December, 1922, was a citizen of Eire."

The amendment made to the British Nationality Act under the Ireland Act was intended to make it clear, in summary, that regardless of the position under Irish law, the affected persons domiciled in Northern Ireland on 6 December 1949 would not be deprived of a British citizenship status they would otherwise have enjoyed but for Irish law.

Section 5 of the 1949 Act conferred Citizenship of the UK and Colonies (CUKC) on any Irish-born person meeting all the following criteria:[10]

  1. was born before 6 December 1922 in what became the Republic of Ireland;
  2. was domiciled outside the Republic of Ireland on 6 December 1922;
  3. was ordinarily resident outside the Republic of Ireland from 1935 to 1948; and
  4. was not registered as an Irish citizen under Irish legislation.

Separate to nationality law, the 1949 Act also provided that "citizens of the Republic of Ireland" (the British nomenclature adopted under the Act) would continue to be treated on a par with those from Commonwealth countries and would not be treated as aliens.

British Nationality Act 1981

The British Nationality Act 1981, in force from 1 January 1983:[11]

  • retained the facility for those born in the Republic of Ireland before 1949 to register as British subjects (section 31)
  • provided that Irish citizens, in common with those from the Commonwealth, would be required to apply for naturalisation as British citizens rather than registration after five years' residence in the UK (three years if married or in a Civil Partnership with a British citizen).
  • British subjects retained the right to apply for registration as a British citizen after five years' residence in the UK.

Access to British citizenship for Irish citizens

As a result of the above, there is generally no special access to British citizenship for Irish citizens. The facility for those born before 1949 to claim British subject status does not confer British citizenship, although it gives an entitlement to registration as such after five years in the UK.

Irish citizens seeking to become British citizens are usually required to live in the UK and become naturalised after meeting the normal residence and other requirements, unless they can claim British citizenship by descent from a UK born or naturalised parent. An Irish citizen who naturalises as a British citizen does not automatically lose Irish citizenship.

Naturalisation as a British citizen is a discretionary power of the Secretary of State for the Home Department but will generally not be refused if the requirements are met.

British subject passports

Persons holding British subject status may apply for a United Kingdom passport, which is not eligible for the United States Visa Waiver Program, the Australian Electronic Travel Authority or visa-free tourist entry to Canada.[12]

Irish-born British subjects qualify for right of abode in the UK, and their British subject passport will be endorsed to this effect. Unlike other British subject passports, the passports of British subjects with the right of abode are marked "European Union", as their holders are European Union citizens.


The July 1980 White Paper titled British Nationality Law – Outline of Proposed Legislation (upon which the British Nationality Act 1981 is largely based) stated that 140,000 persons from the Republic of Ireland had made claims to retain British subject status since 1949. More claims, albeit at a slower rate, have been lodged since 1980.

British born children of Irish citizens

Before 1983, anyone born in the UK other than the child of a diplomat was automatically British by birth.

From 1 January 1983 an additional requirement was put in place that one parent must be a British citizen or 'settled' in the United Kingdom. Irish citizens are automatically deemed to be "settled" in the United Kingdom.[13] Since 2 October 2000, this is a more favourable status than that given to citizens of other EU and EEA member states. This special status comes from section 1(3) of the Immigration Act 1971, the legislative basis for the Common Travel Area.

It is not publicised by the Home Office, but reference can be found in the Home Office Nationality Instructions, EEA and Swiss citizens (pdf)

"5.3 ... Citizens of the Irish Republic, whether exercising EEA free movement rights or not, are not normally subject to any form of immigration control on arrival in the UK because of the Republic's inclusion in the Common Travel Area (s.1(3), Immigration Act 1971)"


"8.3 The 2000 Regulations did not affect the position of EEA nationals entitled to remain indefinitely on some other basis, for example because they had been granted indefinite leave to remain under some other provision of the Immigration Rules, were entitled by virtue of diplomatic status to exemption from UK immigration control or because, as Irish nationals, they benefit under the Common Travel Area provisions. Persons in these categories should be regarded as having been free from any restriction under the immigration laws on the period for which they may remain."

See also


  1. ^ Extract from a memorandum on nationality and citizenship prepared ... for the Conference on the Operation of Dominion Legislation - Dublin, undated October 1929
  2. ^ The Irish Times, 2 April 1942; See also
  3. ^
  4. ^ Mansergh, Nicholas (2013). Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs: Problems of Wartime Cooperation and Post-War Change 1939-1952. Routledge.  
  5. ^ HC Deb 01 June 1949 vol 465 cc2235-51 (Secretary of State for Home Affairs)
  6. ^ HC Deb 01 June 1949 vol 465 cc2235-51 (Secretary of State for Home Affairs)
  7. ^ HC Deb 01 June 1949 vol 465 cc2235-51 (Secretary of State for Home Affairs)
  8. ^ HC Deb 01 June 1949 vol 465 cc2235-51 (Secretary of State for Home Affairs)
  9. ^ HC Deb 01 June 1949 vol 465 cc2235-51 (Secretary of State for Home Affairs)
  10. ^ R. F. V. Heuston (January 1950). "British Nationality and Irish Citizenship". International Affairs 26 (1): 77–90.  
  11. ^ Bernard Ryan (2001). "The Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland". Modern Law Review 64 (6): 831–54.  
  12. ^ "Information for British Passport Holders," Government of Canada, 17 July 2011, accessed 15 July 2013.
  13. ^ Irish nationals in UK law
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