By Emma de Souza.
The Good Friday Agreement was overwhelming supported in referenda both North and South – yet a core principle and the very integrity of the treaty itself is currently being questioned and undermined. I am an Irish citizen born in Northern Ireland, whose Good Friday Agreement right to identify as such has been persistently denied by the British Home Office.
In 2015 when I married my American husband Jake, I discovered that my lifelong Irish identity is evidently considered secondary to an unclaimed British identity. I have always believed throughout my life that I was Irish; 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 – yet there I was, in an unprecedented situation where this additional and entirely imposed citizenship was stripping me of my EU right to family life. Our application for an EEA [European Economic Area] Residence Card was met with a letter of refusal, accompanied by a deportation order.
The British Home Office rejected Jake’s application for an EEA residence card in the north of Ireland, for complex reasons. Although I was born in Derry, and have a right under the Good Friday Agreement to identify as either Irish or British or both, Britian has classified me as being British.
In its refusal letter, the Home Office wrote: “…your spouse is entitled to renounce her status as a British citizen and rely on her Irish citizenship, but until that status is renounced she is as a matter of fact a British citizen”.
The British government effectively argued that I am a British citizen until I revoke it in favour of my Irish citizenship. As they therefore class me as a British citizen, but I am an Irish passport-holder, the British government had classified me as having dual-citizenship, and cannot go through the British immigration system as an EU national. On this basis, my husband’s application for a residence card was refused.
This presupposition goes against my understanding of not just the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, but my identity as a whole.
We appealed against the Home Office’s decision on the grounds that the Good Friday Agreement explicitly allows the people of the north of Ireland to chose their nationality – be that Irish or British or both – and were successful at the first hurdle.
Judge S Gillespie ruled: “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 insofar as the people of Northern Ireland are concerned. He or she is permitted to choose their nationality as a birth right. Nationality cannot therefore be imposed on them at birth.”
Two years later, and the British Home Office are still seeking to have this ruling set aside. Worryingly, the Secretary of State has lodged grounds of appeal, stating “A treaty HMG is a party to, does not alter the laws of the United Kingdom”.
Devastatingly for us, the British government has pursued us tirelessly through the courts – for the duration of our marriage – because I hold Irish citizenship and will not accept a government-imposed British citizenship. The Home Office’s appeal is based on arguing that the judge’s interpretation of the law was flawed, and that the Good Friday Agreement has less authority than British immigration law.
This legal wrangle is now entering its fourth year. 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. With these restrictions, Jake was unable to leave the country and had to turn down opportunities for work.
The highest price, however, was losing the last two years of his grandmother’s life. Every request to see Jake’s grandmother in her progressively deteriorating condition was denied. When she passed away at home in Los Angeles, Jake’s request to attend the funeral was denied.
It was only after increased media pressure that the Home Office eventually relented – couriering Jake’s passport back to us and allowing him a belated farewell to his late grandmother; a bittersweet farewell mired in remorse for not having been afforded an opportunity to say goodbye. By this point, the personal cost and loss resulting from the Home Office and their decisions was becoming overwhelming.
A price on Irish identity
Most troubling though is that our experience is not unique, but rather a window into a much deeper and wider issue occurring across our society. The reality being felt by myself and many in our community is that there is a price on Irish identity – a personal price that leaves many questioning what our identity is truly worth.
A process referred to as Renunciation of British Citizenship is offered by the British Home Office as a solution, but what does it really entail?
Firstly, the form is a legal document that begins with a declaration: “I am a British citizen”.
It also requires substantial evidence to prove you have British citizenship. Birth in the north of Ireland constitutes automatic British citizenship for those seeking to realize their EU rights. For those renouncing, it is considered insufficient evidence of British citizenship. Considering that many individuals choosing this route do not consider themselves British in the first place, it can be an emotionally arduous process.
In addition, the process also costs £372. No small fee for renouncing a citizenship which under the Good Friday Agreement should be entirely optional. There should be no levy on an Irish person to be recognised as Irish to live on our island! Anyone taking this route will also lose freedom of movement for up to six months while the Home Office processes their application.
Then there is the uncertainty: nobody knows what the ramifications of renouncing are. In a recent case, the Home Office went so far as to question the residency rights of a citizen who had renounced their British citizenship. There is a very real possibility that going forward, anyone else choosing to renounce may be exposed to further impediments on their right to remain in their home. There is also concern about the rights of the wider family as a whole, and the effect renouncing may have on them.
This, in my opinion, is not a reasonable solution.
The basis of the Good Friday Agreement is founded on equality of treatment and respect for the two communities of the north of Ireland. This is a commitment the British government agreed to, and in the Brexit negotiations, has promised to uphold.
However, Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes has raised grave concerns as to the British Government’s intentions stating:“Our view is that an international agreement such as the Belfast Agreement cannot supersede domestic legislation… as a matter of law, people in Northern Ireland are British by birth”.
My assertion calls into question the British government’s interpretation and dedication to the Good Friday Agreement. The effect of this interpretation are far-reaching, and are causing immense personal strain and hardship on families across the north of Ireland.
For many, identity is something which cannot be taken away, or even questioned. It has long been accepted by many as the most fundamental of rights. It is of paramount importance to the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement. If the British government can arbitrarily disregard rights guaranteed to the people of the north of 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. For us, 2019 will mark another court hearing on the right to have my identity recognised, respected and accepted as Irish.
Emma De Souza is an immigration and citizens’ rights campaigner. Follow her on Twitter @EmmandJDeSouza. The open letter above was sent to political representatives including MEPs this week, and has been reprinted here with the author’s permission. (Photo supplied.)