The people of Northern Ireland remain British citizens even if they identify as Irish, according to an Upper Tribunal court ruling in the United Kingdom last month. It’s a startling decision that strikes at the foundations of Northern Ireland’s peace process and creates a profound divide between the two main communities. It also serves to highlight an uncomfortable truth; the British Government has given up on the Good Friday Agreement.
The mutual ambition and hope to shape a society of equals that existed during the peace talks has all but dissipated. The initiative to take a generous rights-based approach to Northern Ireland has given way to convenience. What this court ruling exposed was that successive British governments have failed to legislate key provisions of the Good Friday Agreement into domestic UK law. Instead of bringing legislation in line with the letter and the spirit of the agreement, the current government would prefer to bend it, reinterpret it, rewrite it even. The spirit of cooperation this is not.
The provision in question is the “birthright protection,” which recognises the entitlement of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify and be accepted as Irish or British or both. This provision has been essential in order to maintain and respect the delicate identity balance that exists in Northern Ireland. Brexit is overshadowing this ruling and, as a result, is cloaking the unravelling of fundamental rights. Under the cover of rhetoric, the stark reality is that the government is paying lip service to it and protecting only the parts of the Good Friday Agreement that serve to benefit the government.
As trade continues to dominate the headlines on Brexit, it’s worth remembering that the peace process is about much more than trade; it’s about identity, equality and parity of esteem. More than anything else, it is a compromise.
It was my family at the centre of last month’s court ruling. We’ve found ourselves at the centre of a test of the constitutional nature of the Good Friday Agreement - and not by choice. I am an Irish national - who applied for an EEA residence card for my US husband in 2015, only for the application to be denied on the grounds that I am considered automatically British having been born in Northern Ireland. I’ve never held a British passport or adopted a British identity and grew up believing that all of us in Northern Ireland have the right to be accepted as Irish or British or both thanks to the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.
I always thought of this as a great privilege. The Home Office, however, does not accept my identity choice. It has spent the last four years dragging us through the courts, and will continue to do so until I accept that I am a British citizen and, until I renounce British citizenship, I cannot access my EU right to family reunification. We never set out to spend years in court. My husband and I were starting our married life together and expected this immigration process to be relatively simple. After all, it is the same process and route that all Irish and EU citizens living in the United Kingdom have open to them. We did not image - nor could we have - that my identity, my lifelong sense of self, would be brought into question through this process.
The effects of last month’s court ruling can still be felt reverberating across Northern Ireland. Having made repeated appeals, the Home Office has now successfully argued that Northern Ireland citizens have no right to choose their nationality, regardless of the birthright provisions outlined in the Good Friday Agreement. Rather, they are permitted to identify on a personal level as Irish, yet are in fact British at birth.
This sets a dangerous precedent, 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.
While the court ruling exposed a failure on behalf of the government to incorporate the birthright provisions into UK law, the Irish government upheld their commitments as co-guarantors nearly twenty years ago. Under international law, if domestic law is out of step with commitments to a treaty, then there’s an onus on the government to bring domestic legislation in line with said commitment. Instead, however, the UK government is attempting to rewrite this provision without the consent of the people of the island of Ireland which it affects.
Going up against the endless resources of the Home Office has been difficult task but the stakes are too high to give up . 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. I was 11 years old when the agreement came into place, young enough to grow up believing in its promise but not young enough to have escaped the Troubles unscathed.
As a child, I understood that I was born and lived on the island of Ireland. I knew there were safe places and not safe places, and that was often determined by your religious upbringing. Strangers presumed my identity before I’d been given the opportunity to form one for myself. My identity is personal. It’s complex. It is who I am.
That is the heart of our case and why for us we cannot give up. There is something so unjust, so inherently wrong with the government foisting British citizenship on those who do not want it. With forcing Irish citizens in Northern Ireland to first accept that they are British, declare themselves as British and renounce being British in order be accepted as exclusively Irish.
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.
Peace in Northern Ireland is predicated on the principles of equality, parity of esteem and mutual respect. The policy being enacted by the government today tears up those principles and the cavalier attitude that comes with it is deeply damaging to the peace process.
The failure of the UK to give domestic legal effect to the birthright provisions affects all of us in Northern Ireland, which is why we must all work together with generosity to demonstrate our determination to build an ambitious rights based society founded on mutual respect and parity of esteem.
Many have asked me why I won’t accept British citizenship. The answer is simple: I’m not British. I was raised Irish. It is integral to my culture and my heritage. It is simply who I am.
- Emma DeSouza is an immigration and citizens’ rights campaigner from Northern Ireland.
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