The Good Friday Agreement is under siege – and so is my right to have an Irish identity in Northern Ireland.
For most people, their identity is not something that can be taken away from them or questioned. Identity is complex, it’s personal, it’s, for me, unexplainable.
Described as ‘the condition of being oneself’ and protected in countless treaties worldwide, identity has been long accepted as a basic human right. It was an overriding principle in Northern Ireland throughout the Troubles and paramount to the Good Friday Agreement -and it is here where it carries an even greater significance and weight.
The treaty affords the people of Northern Ireland the right to choose their identity; a choice that was essential in bringing peace and one which is being habitually diminished, challenged and refused by the UK Government.
I am an Irish citizen, born in Northern Ireland whose Good Friday Agreement right to identify as such has been repeatedly denied by the UK Home Office. An identity that I didn’t chose or consider in a place where religion is often synonymous with it. Even as a child, I knew when I was safe or unsafe and understood the reason for that was my Irish identity.
The political landscape and attitudes have changed massively but the divisions of my childhood created in me a unique affinity for my identity. Its true worth and importance wasn’t something I often thought of until I began the process of stabilising my non-EU spouse’s status when I’d find myself questioning the validity of my lifelong self.
In 2015, I applied for a European Economic Area (EEA) residence card for my husband as the spouse of an Irish national. This was refused by the UK Home Office who claim that I am "automatically a British Citizen” as I was "clearly born in the United Kingdom.” The Good Friday Agreement states that the people of Northern Ireland can chose to be Irish or British or both. The right to self-identify and, in my case, the right to not be British is central to the agreement itself.
The department offered, as it oftentimes does, the option to renounce this unclaimed citizenship. The first line of the form is a declaration ‘I am a British citizen.’ It seemed to me, that in the eyes of the UK Government my choice to be Irish was wrong, lesser, unimportant and irrelevant, a feeling that has not subsided.
Appealing came at an immeasurable personal cost, no freedom of movement for 2 years being one. The judge ruled in our favour stating that: "The constitutional changes effected by the Good Friday Agreement with its annexed British-Irish Agreement, the latter amounting to an international treaty between sovereign governments supersede the British Nationality Act 1981 in so far as the people of Northern Ireland are concerned.
“He or she is permitted to choose their nationality as a birthright. Nationality cannot therefore be imposed on them at birth."
The UK Home Office now seek to overturn this ruling, one that has already been upheld in a second decision. The department claims the judge “misconstrued the effect of the British-Irish Agreement,” stating that “a treaty to which the UK government is a party does not alter the laws of the United Kingdom.” A worrying argument.
The UK government maintains that it is fully committed to the Good Friday Agreement whilst simultaneously contesting the treaty through the courts. It reassures both the Irish government and EU that it will uphold its commitments whilst fighting to break them.
During the three years of our marriage - and the three years of this legal battle - we’ve uncovered a systemic, institutionalised disregard for the Good Friday Agreement. The failings within the Home Office are at every level. We’ve seen citizens be told they’ve obtained their Irish passport by fraud, that their child has no right to residence in Northern Ireland, that they have no right to residence with an Irish passport.
A community within Northern Ireland is, in the here and now, being marginalised, penalised and discriminated against, the effect of which is catastrophic. And the cause is their identity.
This presupposition taken by the UK Home Office further cements not the citizenship clause of the Good Friday Agreement, but the fear that people of Northern Ireland will become second class EU citizens after Brexit.
The people of Northern Ireland did not vote for Brexit and a simmering disquiet can be felt across the country as the deadline approaches, evidenced in the Letter to Leo campaign of which I was a signatory. The campaign directly calls on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to stand by his government’s commitments. As co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish government has a responsibility to protect the interests of its people north of the border.
The atmosphere is palpable – and the fear growing - that the future Northern Ireland has been working towards will be taken apart by Brexit. We have no guarantees and no protections; just a clear gradual erosion of the treaty each side is promising to protect. No matter which way I look at Brexit, it is set to breach the treaty. If it isn’t the border issue, then it’s citizenship rights where there can be no detrimental or differential treatment between the two communities of Northern Ireland.
The intention or motivation behind the UK Home Office relentlessly appealing this court ruling remains unclear. What is clear, however, is there is a price on an Irish identity in Northern Ireland. It is losing your right to work. It is losing your right to travel. It is losing the right to be at your grandmother’s side as she passes. It is losing your right to be who you are. You have to ask yourself, ‘what is your identity worth?’
We return to *court on November 26th with the argument that identity is tantamount to the Good Friday Agreement. In the words of Bill Clinton in 1998, “In the days to come there may be those who try to undermine this great achievement. All the parties and the rest of us must stand shoulder to shoulder to defy any such appeal.”
[*When asked for comment, a Home Office spokesperson said: “It would be inappropriate to comment whilst there are ongoing legal proceedings.”]
Emma DeSouza is an immigration and citizens’ rights campaigner from Northern Ireland