There is a slow realisation washing over the people of Northern Ireland. The realisation that an intrinsic part of the Good Friday Agreement - an agreement that brought peace and stability to the island of Ireland - is quickly disappearing. It is fast becoming a casualty of Brexit and the UK government’s failure to fully implement the UN registered bilateral agreement into action.
Inequality between the two main communities was a core issue in Northern Ireland’s tumultuous past. When the parties sat down and brokered the Agreement, that inequality was centre stage. A solution was reached; that there can be no differential treatment between the communities, or the ‘parity of esteem’ as it became known. As a result, the people of Northern Ireland were given a unique right within the United Kingdom and Ireland: the birth right to choose their nationality - whether that be Irish or British or both. That freedom of choice is essential to the very fabric of the Good Friday Agreement, a freedom which Brexit threatens to eliminate.
The hardening of the Irish border has been of paramount importance during the Brexit negotiations as both sides come to terms with the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. There has been a mutual understanding that the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement is sacrosanct and any such border would in effect breach the agreement. The backstop – seen by many as an insurance policy and the bare minimum to ensure no return to any such border - was thought to be resolved. However, the passing of the Brady amendment reignites doubts over the UK government’s sincerity to remain committed to its obligations.
However, the backstop in its enormity has overshadowed a developing crisis around citizenship, identity and the Good Friday Agreement. The fact that British passport holders in Northern Ireland will have significantly different rights to their Irish neighbours or that Irish passport holders are being advised to renounce British citizenship - to be accepted as Irish and not British under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement - has received little coverage.
What’s also being under-reported is the weighty personal impact of these government-enforced choices. The trauma and stress that comes from having your very identity questioned or undermined is understandably trying. My own tumultuous court case over Irish identity – which has now been on-going for four years - demonstrates both the importance of that identity and the personal cost being felt by those in our community.
We’re already seeing a manifestation of the effect Brexit will have on the delicate balance within our society. We’re seeing Northern Ireland-born British citizens having to obtain Irish passports in order to access freedom of movement across the EU. We’re seeing Northern Ireland-born Irish citizens having to formally renounce British citizenship in order to access the EU’s family life rights. And as for dual nationals, they already experience a restriction to their EU rights in that they cannot benefit from EU family life rights and will not, as recently revealed, be able to secure their EU rights under the Settlement Scheme. Neither will Irish citizens.
Under the current circumstances, each of the three categories of citizenship, to which all Northern Ireland-born citizens are entitled, come with complex restrictions which instead actively force citizens to choose one citizenship, one identity or the other. This is a tremendous breach of the Good Friday Agreement and the principles of its foundation; a breach that Brexit is exacerbating.
Eminent figures from within the field of academia and human rights have been making noise on diminution of rights in Northern Ireland. During a recent Oireachtas (Irish parliamentary) committee hearing they painted a bleak picture, calling on an immediate panel to review the “crisis” developing in the North.
The Committee heard that: “People might find themselves forced to assume an identity they would not choose for themselves.” The director of the Committee for the administration of Justice added: “The citizenship issue is an example of how basic assumptions of the Good Friday Agreement have been undermined. The basic breach of this principle of equality by Brexit amounts to a new focus of division between the two main communities.”
At one point, my case was raised during the committee hearing in an effort to highlight the erroneous position the UK Home Office has taken in regards to Northern Ireland-born Irish citizens. My husband and I have been embroiled in a lengthy legal battle against UK government-imposed British citizenship and for the right to be accepted as an Irish national only. The UK Home Office has persistently appealed against us, insisting that all the people of Northern Ireland are British irrespective of their choice under the Good Friday Agreement.
Even more concerning than the Home Office relentlessly dragging families like mine through the courts with appeals, is the statement that it is the UK government’s “view that an international agreement such as the Belfast Good Friday cannot supersede domestic legislation.” Essentially, the UK government does not consider itself legally bound to the very treaty it currently claims to be protecting. This raises very real concerns and fears that the government may further distance itself from its obligations under the Agreement after Brexit.
As a consequence of the diminution of rights and disregard for Northern Ireland’s unique position within the United Kingdom, there’s been a seismic shift in attitudes. Open dialogues on Irish reunification are developing across the country. Members from all sides; from political to religious, and nationalist to unionist, are gathering to have reasonable conversations about the framework of a border poll. I would never have predicted these conversations two years ago. We’re seeing a kind of awakening, stoked by the minimisation of our unique identity and citizenship rights and the reality that we are being taken out of the European Union against our will.
As focus falls back to Westminster and the potential fallout from the Brady amendment, a storm is brewing in Northern Ireland. We are coming to terms with the reality that our right to choose, our self-determination, is deteriorating at an alarming rate. It’s clear with Brexit that we don’t have a choice at all - and that is a clear violation of the Good Friday Agreement.
Time and again we hear the phrase “written in sand” when discussing the legislative underpinnings of the Good Friday Agreement, a phrase that encompasses our reality perfectly. Calling the Sorites Paradox to mind, how many grains of sand can be removed from a heap before it is no longer a heap but a single grain of sand. The Brexit storm is coming and we all know what happens to sand in the rain.
Emma DeSouza is an immigration and citizens' rights campaigner from Northern Ireland