Irish Republican News · June 2, 2004
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
IRISH REPUBLICAN NEWS: Citizenship risk cuts both ways
Citizenship risk cuts both ways

By Brian Feeney (for the irish News)

Here’s what the Good Friday Agreement says about citizenship. That the British and Irish governments will “recognise 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”.

In accordance with the terms of the agreement the Irish government amended Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution which unionists claimed caused them so much offence. Article 2 now reads, “It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish nation. That is also the entitlement of all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland”.

Not for long folks. Next week all that will change. The opinion polls in the Republic indicate that on June 11 a majority will vote to amend the constitution yet again to remove the right of every person born in the island to be part of the Irish nation. In future, to be an Irish citizen your parents will have to have some connection with Ireland. Most importantly, the extent of that connection will be laid down by legislation passed by the Oireachtas, not guaranteed by the constitution as provided in the Good Friday Agreement.

This procedure will have profound consequences for people in the north of Ireland and for the Good Friday Agreement itself.

The Irish government was aware of how controversial such a change would be, so naturally they did not consult anyone in Ireland, whether opposition parties in the south or any of the parties in the north who support the agreement.

Instead they secretly contacted the British government to check if it would be OK with them.

It was. What do they care? They have their own problems with citizenship. If the Irish government was going to restrict immigrants in any way, no better place to turn to for support than the British. Stopping any trickle from the north into Britain would suit just fine.

It’s true that at the time of the agreement the two governments had already sneakily tried to define “the people of Northern Ireland” in Annex 2 to the agreement which of course is not part of the agreement and therefore has dubious standing. If you’re interested, the two governments say the people of Northern Ireland are “all persons born in Northern Ireland and having, at the time of their birth, at least one parent who is a British citizen, an Irish citizen or is otherwise entitled to reside in Northern Ireland without any restriction on their period of residence”. Which in effect contradicts the qualifications for Irish citizenship in Article 2 of the Irish constitution, you’ll agree. But there you go. So far in the south the debate on the referendum has turned on issues of racism and political opportunism and different classes of citizenship and therefore human rights for children born in the same hospital ward.

Fair enough, because most people in the south couldn’t care less how you define “the people of Northern Ireland” or whether they’re citizens of Ireland or of the moon.

It matters enormously to nationalists in the north however and the Irish government knows that. The profound change for northerners is twofold.

First, handing the power to determine citizenship to the Oireachtas means that at any time in the future an Irish government could change the definition by a new law with no consideration of its effects on “the people of Northern Ireland”. In fact a politician like Michael McDowell who has led the charge on the referendum might think it a positive advantage to proceed in that way just as he has this time.

The second consequence is that this Irish government has moved unilaterally to alter a major constitutional aspect of the Good Friday Agreement, its citizenship provisions, and has thereby handed the DUP an irrefutable argument for the right to re-negotiate the agreement.

Never again can either government tell the DUP that ‘the constitutional fundamentals’ of the agreement are non-negotiable when Dublin has simply proceeded to change a fundamental without any negotiation at all.

This sort of behaviour doesn’t only affect nationalists.

There’s nothing to stop a future British government unilaterally altering the agreement to the detriment of unionists. In fact, given this precedent, it doesn’t matter what it says in the agreement if the two governments cobble together a ‘joint understanding’ on any issue. So much for the 1998 referendum in both parts of the island.

© 2004 Irish Republican News