Citizenship and the Good Friday Agreement: An immigration case study
by Raquel GOMEZ for Shared Future News
8 August 2018
“The birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.” — Belfast/Good Friday Agreement
The term “identity” can be defined as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is”. In Northern Ireland, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, identity should be inclusive; all citizens have the right to hold British or Irish citizenship or both. The peace process in Northern Ireland and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement afforded those born in Northern Ireland an exceptional position within the United Kingdom.
As a part of the Féile an Phobail festival, the event “Citizenship and the Good Friday Agreement” discussed barriers and impediments faced by people from Northern Ireland when they apply for such citizenship, and with reference to the Good Friday Agreement. The event was delivered by Emma and Jake DeSouza, a married couple who are in a legal process to facilitate Mr DeSouza’s immigration status; Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile (Seanad Éireann) and lawyer Una Boyd also spoke for the married couple.
The case of Emma and Jake DeSouza is a representative case of many couples that have to deal with immigration policies of British and Irish governments, to have a status legally regulated for a partner of an Irish citizen living in the UK.
Irish passport holder, Emma, married Jake DeSouza, from the United States, in 2015. “We thought the most difficult decision was: ‘Do we live here or we do live in America?’ We decided this [Northern Ireland] was home; we thought that was the hardest decision ever but it wasn’t. The hardest thing was immigration [services]. [I] applied for a resident card as an Irish citizen, which is what I am. It was denied because my birth was in Northern Ireland,” explained Mrs DeSouza.
The couple claims that they have been told by the Home Office that due to Mrs DeSouza being born in Northern Ireland, according to the British Nationality Act 1981, she is a British citizen and must reapply for Mr DeSouza’s visa while claiming this nationality. During the whole process, Mr DeSouza’s passport is being held by the Home Office. Emma DeSouza emphasised that she is an Irish citizen and she shouldn’t have to renounce British citizenship because she has never considered herself as a British citizen, and she complained about the unnecessary retention of her husband’s passport. “If I apply for a British visa, this would be much easier [but] because I have my Irish citizenship I’ve been in the process for almost three years and Jake [hasn’t left] the country in two years,” explained Mrs DeSouza.
Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile added: “There’s a lot of people in the same situation. It is discriminating. The fact that is easier to be a British citizen identified as British and it is not the same process for someone who is identified as an Irish, it is discriminating. We are not either Irish or British or both, the reality is that we all presume to be both by the British Home Office.”
What Ó Donnghaile was emphasising is that it is not presently possible, in practical terms, for someone born in Northern Ireland to deny a British identity ascribed by the UK government.
Ó Donnghaile argued that there is a legal confrontation between the Good Friday Agreement and the British Nationality Act 1981, which declares that a person born in the United Kingdom “shall be a British citizen”. On the other hand, according to the Good Friday Agreement, there is “a general obligation on government and public bodies fully to respect, on the basis of equality of treatment, the identity and ethos of both communities in Northern Ireland and a clear formulation of the rights not to be discriminated against”.
The lawyer of the couple, Una Boyd, explained the legal process and in which point they are right now. Their appeal to the immigration tribunal succeeded. Furthermore, the Home Office’s further appeal to the upper tribunal was denied. Currently, the Home Office has appealed for the second time. Boyd explained, “If we are successful, then Jake will have his residence card and if we are unsuccessful, we can be facing go back to the early start. It is already being a very complex process. Jake and Emma have a strong determination.”
The legal intricacies of the British as well as Irish government’s immigration policies present challenges to the citizenship rights proclaimed in the Good Friday Agreement. As Senator Ó Donnghaile declared, “The Irish Government has to legislate to tell us what it actually means to be an Irish citizen and what are the rights of this. What are going to be the rights of citizenship in a post Brexit scenario?”
The case continues.
Image: Emma DeSOUZA. Feile an Phobail, Belfast, Northern Ireland. (c) Raquel GOMEZ