Northern citizens look to Dublin for protection

The North now looks to Dublin to safeguard citizens’ rights and the Good Friday Agreement, writes Emma DeSouza.

“The people of Northern Ireland remain British citizens even if they identify as Irish.” This was the ruling of the Upper Tribunal in Belfast on 14 October 2019, the culmination of years of appeals, adjournments, and failed attempts from the British Home Office to overturn a previous decision which ruled that I am an Irish national only.

The government department invested untold time and resources into pursuing a case that negatively impacts the peace process, and at long last was granted the ruling it was hoping for. As the impact of the court’s decision reverberated across Northern Ireland, the Home Office released a statement expressing that they “…are pleased that the upper tribunal agrees that UK nationality law is consistent with the Belfast agreement”. The nationality law to which they refer is the 1981 British Nationality Act which predates the Good Friday Agreement by almost two decades.

I am an Irish citizen; it’s not a choice, it’s not a decision – it is simply who I am. I haven’t held a British passport or claimed British citizenship and yet I’ve found myself in an unprecedented situation. In 2015 when I married my American husband Jake, I discovered that through the UK Government’s failure to give domestic legal effect to the birthright provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, my lifelong Irish identity was evidently considered secondary to an unclaimed British identity. This additional and entirely imposed citizenship deprives me of my rights as an Irish citizen and an EU citizen.

This legal challenge has consumed the first five years of our marriage. For the first two years, we lost our Freedom of Movement. The British Home Office retained Jake’s passport with no legislative authority or policy to do so.

Through this process I’ve had to outline every moment in my life that my Irish identity has been evident, in order to prove that I am Irish. I’ve had to face the repeated exertions from the Home Office that I am in fact British and that until such times as I accept that I am British, declare myself as British and renounce being British I cannot be accepted as exclusively Irish. This is not my understanding of the Good Friday Agreement.

A key objective of the peace talks was to establish equality between the two main communities and to establish a shared society based on the principles of parity of esteem and mutual respect. Yet I’ve witnessed first-hand the negative impact and emotional trauma caused by expecting Irish citizens to declare themselves as British in order to access their rights.

We’ve met families that have lost years in court fighting against this conferral, families that cried whilst renouncing British citizenship, and families that simply moved away from their homes, families and livelihoods. No one should be forced to adopt or renounce a citizenship they’ve never held in order to access rights which were meant to be granted at birth but that is what’s happening. From my experience and correspondence with British officials I can confidently say there is no intention within the British Government to find a solution that is consistent with the Good Friday Agreement.

Identity in Northern Ireland is delicate; it was at the centre of decades of violence and conflict. The Good Friday Agreement sought to respect an identity balance between two opposing communities and by doing so, remove identity as a source of antipathy. Reducing an integral right to choose one’s own national identity – in this case, to identify as and be accepted as Irish – into a right to merely “feel” Irish sets a dangerous precedent.

If the British Government can arbitrarily disregard rights guaranteed to the people of Northern Ireland under an internationally binding peace treaty, what safeguards are in place to prevent further diminution of rights? The uncertainty and lack of legal protections seems certain to get worse with the onset of Brexit. Which raises the question of what can the Irish Government do? With the British Government abdicating its responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland responsibility now falls on Dublin to safeguard citizens’ rights and to uphold the Good Friday Agreement. An unenviable task.

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