Tory eurosceptics are demanding 340,000 Irish citizens be stripped of their right to vote in the looming in-out referendum on UK membership of the EU.
The British government is so concerned about the move it has warned rebels in its own ranks that such action would damage the peace process and endanger relations with Dublin.
The row exploded in the House of Lords as peers opposed to EU membership launched an unprecedented bid to ban Irish citizens from voting in Britain.
Andrew Green said he was not being racist or xenophobic in his attempt to have Irish and Commonwealth citizens banned from taking part in the referendum.
During heated exchanges, the peer said Irish citizens should not have the right to take part unless they became subjects of the British queen.
“I believe that only those that have become British citizens should be allowed to vote,” the peer told Westminster’s upper chamber.
Labour peer Quentin Davies warned such a move would have “the most perniciously destructive” impact on Britain’s relationship with the Republic, be in breach of agreements dating back to 1921, and undermine the Good Friday Agreement.
Former leader of the Welsh separatist Plaid Cymru party Dafydd Wigley warned the tinge of racism was entering the debate on Europe as nationalism was in danger of giving way to xenophobia.
Eurosceptic Tory, Michael Forsyth,spoke in support of the amendment, saying he would not have a vote in an Irish referendum if he lived in Dublin. “I would not have expected to have had a say on whether the Irish should remain in the European Union,” he told the Lords.
Speaking for the British government, Tory minister Edward Faulks attacked the idea of disenfranchising Irish people. “There is a long standing agreement of reciprocity of voting rights between the UK and Ireland,” he told fellow peers.
The Lords did not vote on the controversial amendment to the EU referendum Bill, but that is likely to occur when the legislation returns to the chamber for its report stage next month.
British prime minister David Cameron has said he will hold the landmark referendum by the end of 2017, but due to the uncertainty it is causing the British economy, the poll is likely to be brought forward to the autumn of next year.
With some surveys predicting a tight result, both camps are looking to maximise their share of the vote.
The pro-Europe side is pushing to allow the other 2.3m EU nationals in Britain to be given the same rights as the Irish, Cypriots and Maltese and be allowed to take part in the referendum as they believe that voting block would be overwhelmingly pro-Brussels.
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