Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhaoibh!

The World’s most successful Welsh expat has prompted a short diversion from our series on global mobility basics. Kingsley Napley Employment Partner Juliet Carp and Immigration Partner Marcia Longdon look at the special status of Irish Londoners, and offer some reassurance to Irish expats who don’t appear to meet the normal “permanent residence requirements” applicable to other EU nationals who wish to remain indefinitely.

A very high proportion of Londoners hold Irish passports, are entitled to apply for Irish passports, or would consider themselves to be of Irish descent. (According to the Irish passport office 733,000 passports were issued in 2016. 66,000 of those were issued in London. The Republic’s resident population is only 4.7 million.) And anyone who has stood at an Aircoach bus stop early on a Monday morning or taken a flight to Dublin from City Airport will have a sense of the scale of business traffic between the two islands.

And Brexit. In a sense, Irish citizens are no different from other EU nationals who can currently visit, live and work in the UK. But, Ireland is undoubtedly our closest friend abroad, would be the hardest hit by trade tariffs between the EU and UK – and legally the immigration status of Irish people is different from the status of other EU nationals. Brexit will affect the Irish differently. (See also Irish business law firm Mason, Hayes & Curran’s thoughtful comments here.)

So where does that leave Irish people who want to stay in the UK? Well, firstly, many Irish people hold both British and Irish passports, and Brexit is not expected to create any immigration problems for them. Many are also already eligible to apply for a British passport if they choose to, some because they met the criteria for being British at birth and some because they have lived here for long enough.

It is worth taking a closer look at those who have been in the UK a long time, but who are not technically British. Citizens of the Republic of Ireland are also EU nationals and they can currently live and work in the UK just like any EU national. EU nationals who have lawfully exercised their treaty rights for at least the previous 5 years can apply for “permanent residence” in the UK and, following that, for UK citizenship if they wish.

As many Europeans are already finding out, living in the UK for 5 years does not automatically mean that treaty rights have been lawfully exercised for 5 years. After an initial 3 month period, EU nationals must have been doing things that qualify (eg being employed, self-employed or studying). Being unemployed and looking for a job may be OK, but the individual must be able to show that they had comprehensive medical cover during that period. The devil is in the detail and there are other ways of falling between the stools.

The good news for the Irish is that they are currently special, not just for St Patrick’s Day, but from a UK immigration perspective.

All Irish passport-holders are automatically treated as settled here in the UK from their date of arrival. They don’t need to worry about periods without private medical cover or gathering detailed evidence of their working history. Special rules apply based on “Common Travel Area” rules that applied long before the UK joined the EU in 1972. These rules recognise our special relationship and shared history, and are currently respected by the EU. And long may that continue!

Like other EU nationals, Irish people can still apply for permanent residence if they wish to, and some will choose to do so now. (See Immigration specialist Nicolas Rollason's update here for more information on how the triggering of Article 50 will impact employers of EU nationals.)

There is no guarantee that the Common Travel Area can be preserved post-Brexit. If Ireland remains in the EU and the UK leaves, the UK will be negotiating primarily with the EU, not Ireland, over preservation of our Irish friends’ special status. Currently, it seems unlikely that those negotiations will create unnecessary difficulty for Irish people living here, but Ireland needs to stay a high priority for those negotiating Brexit terms.

Support for Ireland’s special immigration status matters not just because we value our friends and family, but for business. Ireland has a highly skilled English speaking workforce and we are Ireland’s biggest market. We need each other.

Let’s celebrate our friends in London today and at the parade on Sunday, and when we’ve finished our Guinness, make sure we each do our bit to help make sure Ireland stays a Brexit priority.