Artillery Row

Irish nationalism’s intolerant distaste for Britishness

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s green-tinged agenda

As well as murderers and other ex-terrorists in government, the endless ‘peace-process’ in Northern Ireland equipped the province with a vast industry of quangos, ombudspeople, lobbyists and third sector organisations – all sucking greedily at the teat of public finance. While this sector is funded thanks to Westminster’s generosity, it is often nationalist in outlook and uses these resources to attack the Union, the British government, and the supposedly sacred Belfast Agreement settlement.

One prime example of this policy of institutional, taxpayer-funded self-harm is the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC). This body was established by the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which enacted the Belfast Agreement, and it was asked to ‘consult and advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the ECHR, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.’

It failed to discharge this duty spectacularly, presenting recommendations for a “bill of rights” that consisted mainly of left-wing socio-economic demands, and, rights already protected by existing legislation. Two unionist commissioners, Lady Trimble and Jonathan Bell, filed a minority report, and even the then Labour secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward, said the document was of limited use because the NIHRC had gone “well beyond” its remit.

Rather than accept that its work was a disaster, the commission doubled down and spent years aggressively promoting its report. The NIHRC had by then established itself as a quasi-political pressure group, paid for out of public funds, dedicated to expanding the definition of rights and handing responsibility for key aspects of policy to the judiciary.

It has kept up this approach ever since and its latest document, ‘A Legal Analysis of Incorporating into UK Law the Birthright Commitment under the Belfast Agreement 1998’, effectively endorses Irish nationalist attacks on British citizenship law.

This campaign came to prominence thanks largely to Emma De Souza, a Londonderry woman whose husband applied for permission to remain indefinitely in Northern Ireland, under a scheme designed for spouses of non-UK EU citizens. That application was turned down on the basis that De Souza, who was born in Northern Ireland, is a British as well as an Irish citizen.

The problem would have been easily remedied had her husband applied for residence as the spouse of a British citizen, or Ms De Souza could have renounced her UK citizenship, to avail of the EU scheme. Instead, she launched a lengthy legal battle, citing her supposed right, under the Belfast Agreement, to be considered “Irish only.” By which she means, we can safely assume, “an Irish citizen only.”

Last year, the Upper Tribunal for immigration and asylum ruled decisively against the De Souzas and subsequently denied leave to appeal to the Northern Ireland Appeal Court. However, the court in Belfast later accepted a direct application for an appeal. True to the political nature of the campaign, the pair announced that they would tour Irish America, in an attempt to pressurise the UK into changing the law.

De Souza and her supporters quote a provision of the Belfast Agreement that recognises, “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.” They don’t talk about the rest of the paragraph, that states, “their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both governments and would not be affected by any further change in the status of Northern Ireland.”

The Upper Tribunal confirmed that this provision creates a right to identify as Irish or British or both, linked to a right to hold British and Irish citizenship, not, as De Souza’s lawyers claim, British or Irish citizenship. “If the parties to the multi-party agreement and the governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom had intended the concept of self-identification … to include a person’s ability to reject his or her Irish or British citizenship,” the court held, “it is inconceivable that the provisions would not have dealt with this expressly.”

The NIHRC has bundled into this ongoing legal case with a report based on the entirely biased premise that “legislative steps (are) required to incorporate this commitment (from the Belfast Agreement) into UK nationality and immigration law.” The document, written by an immigration barrister, Alison Harvey, contains sixty-four turgid pages, but the tribunal’s carefully worded judgement is dismissed in one vacuous line: “in my opinion these approaches ignore the express wording of the agreement ‘and be accepted as’.” Indeed, the author then banishes any further consideration of the idea that the Belfast Agreement refers to identity rather than citizenship on the grounds that its “is not compatible with the research brief.”

members of the former Conservative government, like the erstwhile Northern Ireland Secretary, Julian Smith, and even Theresa May, seemed minded to capitulate to this demand.

If you’re tempted to read the report, please don’t, because, even under the strictest quarantine, nobody can possibly have enough time or energy to wade through this rubbish voluntarily. It starts from the false premise that the Belfast Agreement has not been properly enacted. It doesn’t address the Good Friday accord’s language on identity and citizenship, or the different wording it uses to distinguish between these concepts. And it then comes up with a convoluted solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

The document’s thrust is that the UK should not assume someone is a British citizen in case it infringes their (entirely fictitious) “right not to be identified as a British citizen.” It even envisages Irish nationalist parents writing to the Home Office to assert this non-existent right on behalf of their children (paras. 192,199).

The NIHRC’s solution seems to be the insertion of a clause into the British Nationality Act that would treat Northern Irish people differently from fellow citizens elsewhere in the UK. This might make it slightly easier for nationalists to renounce British citizenship, but they are able to do that anyway, under the same process that Emma De Souza was free to use to ensure her husband’s right to stay in the UK.

The reason that this dry slice of immigration law matters, and the reason that nationalists have supported this politically charged battle through the courts, is inadvertently revealed by a paragraph in the report that claims “the negative connotations of forcing British citizenship on persons on the island of Ireland…. are the story of the struggle for independence of Ireland.” The Belfast Agreement, and the identity provisions in that document, are cast, not as a compromise between unionists and nationalists, but as a stepping-stone in a journey toward Irish “independence.” Irish people have the right to be Irish untainted by any noxious taint of Britishness. British people have no corresponding right to be British in this “ourselves alone” vision of tolerance, mutual respect, strict adherence to the terms of the Belfast Agreement, et cetera, et cetera.

The citizenship campaign is part of Irish nationalism’s attempt to side-step the “principle of consent” that preserves Northern Ireland’s place within the UK. The aim is to imply that “rights and equality” require British and Irish citizenship (and the British and Irish state) to be on exactly the same footing in Northern Ireland, to ensure “parity of esteem.” It hardly matters whether nationalist activists sincerely believe that the Agreement did what it plainly did not do – somehow take NI out of the UK – what matters is how the government responds to this unrelenting campaign to undermine what the Agreement actually said. As opposed to its imaginary invisible annex.

It is shocking that naïve (or worse?) members of the former Conservative government, like the erstwhile Northern Ireland Secretary, Julian Smith, and even Theresa May, seemed minded to capitulate to this demand. Which to repeat, would upend the Agreement entirely, by ending the automatic British status of anyone in Northern Ireland who didn’t want to purge themselves of this shame. Much less surprising is the complicity of the NIHRC, which is helping republicans to distort the language of human rights in their efforts to break up the Union. It’s a dismal reflection of the failure of the government’s ‘unit for the Union’ that these quangos are allowed to go on festering, all the while paid for by the British taxpayer.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover