The Citizenship Rights of the Good Friday Agreement – Real or Imagined?

The Belfast Good Friday Agreement is widely championed as a success. Revered as a model of peace, it’s representative to many as a demonstration of the power of collaboration and compromise. And in a lot of ways, this is all true – “decommissioning”, the North South institutions, and power sharing have all changed the very fabric of Northern Ireland for the better. However, considering the lack of codification, the St. Andrews amendments and the current stalemate at Stormont, did we celebrate a little too soon?

In the legal community, the Agreement is known as a Peace-Keeping Treaty, a mighty term. There is no questioning the weight or merit of the Agreement itself, as George Mitchell, former US senator who chaired talks in ’98 recently commented, “these were ordinary men, 700 days of failure, they joined in one day of success and they changed the course of history.”

The work and political will of the architects of the Agreement is meritorious. A foundation of equality was built on with a need to respect and accept the communities of Northern Ireland being acknowledged. “Parity of Esteem”, as it’s known, is the basis of that equality – there can be no detrimental or differential treatment between the communities of Northern Ireland. Identity was, and is of paramount importance. A right to be Irish or British or both was established.

When the Good Friday Agreement went to referenda in ’98, it was on those principles, and it was overwhelming supported both North and South. I was 11 in ’98 – definitely too young to vote, but I grew up as a child of the peace provided by the Agreement.

Identity is described as “the state of being oneself”- it’s complex and personal. I’ve struggled to describe and define my own. At its core my identity is Irish. It was never a choice or a consideration – it is simply who I am. My personal understanding of the legal status of the Good Friday Agreement was at the time severely lacking. I was under the illusion that those promises made were fulfilled, that what the electorate voted for in ’98 was the law I was fortunate enough to live by. I was wrong.

I’ve been embroiled in a legal battle with the UK Home Office since 2015. It began with an immigration case after I met my American husband Jake and we decided to put down roots in Northern Ireland. We started what was anticipated to be the relatively simple process of stabilising his immigration status as the spouse of an Irish national.

It turned out to be anything but simple. His application was refused on the grounds that I was automatically British by birth in Northern Ireland, and that this additional, unclaimed British citizenship somehow took precedent over my lifelong identity as an Irish national.

I had been under the impression that my right under the Good Friday Agreement to be accepted as Irish was a given, and was astounded to discover that this fundamental principle lacks any legal underpinning.

Even more shocking is the erroneous position the department has taken with our case, tirelessly dragging us through the courts insisting that by law I am in fact British. There seems to be an inability to understand the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and the idea that if we are to be gifted with the right to choose our nationality, it cannot be imposed upon us at birth. In response, the department has stated “there is nothing in the Belfast Good Friday Agreement to prevent British citizenship being acquired at birth” – and so the cycle continues.

So far it has cost us four years – the first four years of our marriage. It has at times been overwhelming. What’s even more difficult is the fact that the root of it is my very identity. It has, at times, felt like my identity as an Irish citizen born in Northern Ireland is somehow secondary or lesser or wrong. 

Preparing for the court proceedings was surreal, I had to comb through my entire life in the hopes that I had enough ‘evidence’ to prove I really identify as Irish. I joke that I’m lucky I chose Irish over French in school but on a serious note that small piece of information, that decision I made well over a decade ago, was necessary to back up my Irish identity.

The highest price, however, was losing the last two years of Jake’s grandmother’s life. Every request to visit his grandmother in her progressively deteriorating condition was denied by the Home Office. We never did get to see her again.

The options we faced as a family were: accept and renounce British citizenship; accept and apply as British; or be forced to leave the country and abandon our life here. “A rock and a hard place” would be an understatement.

We instead choose to pursue the case in court, due to an undeniable feeling that this was a breach of the Good Friday Agreement birth right provisions, and a breach of my intrinsic right to be accepted for who I am. We are fortunate that to date we’ve been successful in the court proceedings with Judge Gillespie ruling that I am an “Irish national only” and “have only ever been such”.

What began as an immigration case has become a window into a much larger issue – a lack of legislation that has left the people of Northern Ireland vulnerable, Irish citizens especially so.

If one were to look closer at the legislation passed through parliament to ratify the Good Friday Agreement, you might find yourself at a loss. Huge gaps remain, even 21 years after that momentous day. The Irish government amended its nationality laws to fall in line with the principle of consent – the British government however did not. That failure, along with a systemic disregard for the Good Friday Agreement, is what has left me and many others exposed. Our case is a manifestation of that failure.

This gap in legislation is nothing new, it’s been there for over two decades and its existence is certainly no secret to the UK government. The UK Home Office has maintained the case against us as a family at every opportunity. But we are not alone. Treating the people of Northern Ireland as British is their policy. “As a matter of law,” we are British.

This presumption is about to be extended with the exclusion of NI born Irish citizens from the EU Settlement Scheme. We are to be among the only EU citizens in the United Kingdom unable to secure our EU rights under the Scheme.

There was an acknowledgement from Theresa May earlier this year that an issue exists for NI-born Irish citizens. An ‘urgent’ review was called for. To date there has been no information on this review released, no terms of reference, no timeframe.

There has however been a series of legal cases like mine, with Irish citizens renouncing British citizenship in order to be accepted as Irish. It’s an untenable situation that Brexit exacerbates. The potential ramifications for renouncing, especially in a post Brexit scenario, remain unclear.

The motivations of the department remain unclear. But what is clear, is that there is no political appetite in Westminster to resolve the incompatibility of domestic law and the Good Friday Agreement. As the Home Office has lodged in the court papers, “Our view is that a treaty HMG is a party of does not alter the laws of the United Kingdom” and further that “the courts of the United Kingdom do not have the power to enforce treaty rights and obligations at the behest of a sovereign government or at the behest of a private individual.” The department is actively appealing to have our case overturned and the judgement set aside.

It’s hard to reconcile the foundations of equality which the agreement is built on, with the treatment of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland in the present day.

My experience of parity of esteem is that it does not exist.

The architects of the agreement have spoken out about the importance of power sharing and the need to get Stormont up and running. And I emphatically support these calls. But I’d also like to ask – where were they when the legislation didn’t pass?

Shouldn’t there be an urgency for full realisation of what the agreement was meant to be? Why do we not have the protection of a bill of rights? Why is it us, the people, having to ask these questions?

The dissolution of equality under the Good Friday Agreement grows exponentially with Brexit. In the event that Brexit comes to pass, Irish passport holders in Northern Ireland will hold separate rights to those holding British passports. The solution put forward is to get an Irish passport. This is a flip of my own situation, an imposed citizenship. The idea that those who don’t want to avail of Irish citizenship are to face a loss of rights is against the very fibre of the agreement.

Those blurred lines of identity that allowed peace to grow and flourish are hardening, not through choice but through necessity. A work of “genius” said Bill Clinton on the Good Friday Agreement – and it is – but only if it is fully respected and upheld. He stated in ’98 “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.” We need to wake up and stand up for the future of our island.