The Irish Times view on the DeSouza citizenship case: a right denied

The Belfast Agreement pledges on identity were not meaningless rhetoric – they were designed to have real legal consequences

When the Belfast Agreement recognised the birthright of people in Northern Ireland to identify as Irish or British, or both, it was not intended to be a meaningless rhetorical flourish. It was designed to have real legal consequences. With that pledge, Dublin and London were formally acknowledging in an international treaty the multiple, at times overlapping, identities of those born in Northern Ireland, and in effect renouncing any exclusive claims on people's allegiance.

This was consistent with the philosophical thrust of the entire peace process, based as it was on the idea of consent. From that principle flowed London’s declaration in 1990 that Britain had “no selfish strategic interest” in Northern Ireland. And from it came the Republic’s decision to amend articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution so as to remove the territorial claim to the North.

The revised article 2 stated that it was the entitlement of everyone born on the island, once they met legal criteria, to be citizens of Ireland. Dublin made good on that commitment, clarifying in law that citizenship would be granted to those born in Northern Ireland under the same conditions as those born in the Republic.

London should finally update its laws to reflect commitments it made two decades ago

The London government, it is now clear, did not take corresponding steps to give effect to its side of the bargain. It turns out that, legally speaking, the British government regards the right to identify as Irish as akin to the right to identify as a Tyrone GAA supporter. We know this because the British home office recently argued in court that it considers anyone born in Northern Ireland to be a British citizen. The claim arose in a case taken by Co Derry woman Emma DeSouza, who applied for a residence card for her US-born husband, Jake, to live and work in Northern Ireland but had her application rejected on the basis that she had identified herself as Irish on the application. DeSouza was told she could reapply identifying herself as British or renounce her British citizenship – which DeSouza, an Irish passport-holder, had never claimed.

These questions would be sensitive at any time, but the UK’s impending departure from the EU has made them acutely so. After Brexit, large numbers of Irish citizens living north of the Border will be shunted out of the EU – against the will of the majority in Northern Ireland. Signs of ambivalence from the Conservative government towards the Belfast Agreement, and the DUP’s willingness to put its own narrow interests above those of the broader population it represents, have left many in Northern Ireland deeply nervous – not only about their EU rights and entitlements but about the very foundations of the post-1998 political landscape. They need to be reassured. Step one in that process should be for London finally to update its laws to reflect commitments it made two decades ago.