Seanad debates

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Good Friday Agreement

10:30 am

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as a bheith linn ar maidin. Tá a fhios agam gur tréimhse thar a bheith gnóthach é don Tánaiste agus don Rialtas so táim buíoch go bhfuil seal againn chun cás Emma DeSouza a phlé. I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to be here. I understand that it is an unprecedented period for the Tánaiste and his Department, so I am glad we are able to address this case in the Seanad in any way. The wording of the commencement matter is very clear in its aim. I want to take this opportunity, in the time afforded to me, to commend Emma and Jake DeSouza for the stand they have taken in upholding the Good Friday Agreement and our rights and entitlements as Irish citizens. While Ms DeSouza has found herself on her own in being taken through the courts by the Home Office - an action I contest is unnecessary - she is representative of so many of us. We are her and she is us in this instance. The Good Friday Agreement, agreed 21 years ago, was very clear. To be fair to the Irish Government, it has been very clear - I noted the Taoiseach's remarks on this case in the Dáil yesterday - that we are Irish and Irish citizens. While we do not derive our Irishness from the Good Friday Agreement - it runs much deeper than that - as part of a peace accord and peace settlement, much of which rotated around issues of identity and contested allegiance, the agreement did declare to the world that we are Irish citizens. Some 21 years later, it is simply not good enough that Ms DeSouza finds herself having to go through this judicial process to uphold a basic right - the right to her citizenship.

Irish citizens in the North will have watched what the Government said in the other House yesterday, and will watch what it says in the Seanad this morning and what it says in the coming days and weeks, very carefully, particularly given the context of Brexit and the potential threats arising from it. Crucially, they will also watch what the Government will do over the next short while to ensure that our rights are defended and, by extension, what it will do, as co-guarantor, to defend the Good Friday Agreement. This is a crucial period. There is a lot of anger and deep frustration because of what has happened. Brexit has exposed this weakness and this problem. We need to see the British Government moving on from words. We were told in February of this year that there would be a review but we subsequently found out that no terms of reference or timeframe have been agreed and that no one has been appointed to conduct it. It is, therefore, little wonder that Michel Barnier wants a legally binding text from the British Government in the context of Brexit, because this is what happens when that is not secured. I hope that Irish citizens with skin in the game will hear something positive from the Minister of State this morning and will see the follow-up action that is required.

It is an important point that the Good Friday Agreement is quite unique. It conferred upon us the right to be British, Irish, or both. This does not, therefore, only impact on those of us who identify solely as Irish. Quite a substantial section of society in the North cherishes the fact that they are able to be both British and Irish. They now have to deal with the reality that one identity and one citizenship outweighs the other. That will be of great concern to them, as well as to those of us who identify as, and are, solely Irish.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue. In spite of the unprecedented times in which we live, it is a remarkably important matter. The citizenship and identity provisions are central to the Good Friday Agreement and it is vital that they are upheld. The Government has consistently engaged with the British Government in support of these provisions and will continue to do so. The DeSouzas will want time to consider yesterday's decision in full but have indicated that they intend to appeal. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is keeping in regular contact with Emma and Jake DeSouza on behalf of the Government. It is important to say that Emma DeSouza is an Irish citizen and that this is provided for and protected under the Good Friday Agreement, as the Senator has outlined.The Taoiseach raised the DeSouza case with the former UK Prime Minister, Mrs. May, and he confirmed in the Dáil yesterday that he will also raise it with current Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson. The Tánaiste raised the case with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland again at their meeting last night. This underlines the seriousness with which the Government views the DeSouza case and the wider obligation on the British Government to uphold the citizenship and identity provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, in all relevant areas in Northern Ireland.

The Tánaiste wrote to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland last year and has had a number of discussions with the Secretary of State on the case of Emma DeSouza to raise concerns over the citizenship and identity provisions of the agreement, and to seek a review of the issues.

In February, following this engagement by the Government, the then British Prime Minister, Theresa May, acknowledged that there are serious concerns in this area and pledged to review the issues relating to citizenship urgently to deliver a long-term solution consistent with the letter and spirit of the agreement. These were welcome and necessary acknowledgments and commitments by the then Prime Minister.

In this context, the decision of the tribunal in the DeSouza case yesterday does not define the extent of the British Government's obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. In the agreement, the Governments "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."

It is clearly imperative that people in Northern Ireland have confidence in these provisions of the agreement, in letter and in spirit. To provide for that, a positive outcome to the review mandated by the British Government is now urgently needed. The Government is actively engaged to seek that review in our bilateral contacts at the highest levels and through the framework of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, where the two Governments are also discussing citizenship and identity issues under the agreement issues more broadly.

While the DeSouza case is not specifically Brexit related, the concerns it raises over insufficient provision for people's citizenship and identity rights in Northern Ireland, also arise in respect of the UK's decision to exit from the European Union.

The Good Friday Agreement was agreed at a time when both Irish and British citizenships also entailed EU citizenship. After the UK exits the EU, this will no longer be the case. In order to fully uphold the spirit of the agreement, where issues arise, the Government has been clear that they should be addressed in a way that avoids any difference in entitlements-based citizenship. In particular, people in Northern Ireland should not be required to renounce Irish or British citizenship in order to access any entitlement.

Sensitive and generous approaches by the British Government are needed to ensure that the right of people in Northern Ireland to identify as Irish, or British, or both is meaningfully provided for in all relevant policy areas. The British Government needs to listen and urgently respond to the genuine and legitimate concerns that have been raised by Emma DeSouza and many others in Northern Ireland. The Government will continue to strongly pursue this with the British Government, as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.

I understand the Tánaiste is in the North today and I know that this is an issue of the utmost concern to him. He will use his offices insofar as he can to ensure that British Government act on this case and more importantly on the wider issue it has thrown up of identity and citizenship in the North.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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I appreciate the Minister of State's response. I express my appreciation for the work of the Tánaiste and the departmental officials who have been working closely with the DeSouzas.

I caution the Government that in the context of Brexit negotiations and also in the context of the Good Friday Agreement we have frequently heard statements from any number of British Ministers saying they will not undermine or jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement and yet here is an example of them doing precisely that.

Since the judgment in Belfast on Monday we have heard concerns expressed from Capitol Hill about this issue. Those friends of Ireland have made very clear that in the context of any trade deal there can be no undermining of the Good Friday Agreement and our peace accord. It appears to be happening already unless it is resolved.

I am sure the pressure from Government and the pressure that will emerge from civic, community and political life not just in the North but across Ireland will also provide a positive platform to challenge this retrograde decision that flies in the face of the Good Friday Agreement. Collectively and collaboratively I believe we can bring the necessary pressure to bear to ensure that change is codified in British law. That is what is needed but it is absent currently.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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The Senator has touched on what did not happen in respect of citizenship post the agreement and the referendum held both North and South. The Government will remain engaged at the highest level with British Government about the DeSouza case and these matters in general. We have been doing so for more than a year. As the Senator acknowledged the Government is in close and regular contact with Emma and Jake DeSouza, as they continue their case in the UK courts. This is about providing confidence to all the people in Northern Ireland about the citizenship and identity provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.

Further to the Government's engagement and the case that Emma DeSouza has had to take, the British Government has acknowledged serious concerns and has mandated a review. A positive and constructive outcome to this review by the British Government is urgently needed and we are actively seeking that.

In the context of Brexit, the Government has also worked extensively and remains engaged to ensure that Irish citizens, and therefore EU citizens, in Northern Ireland can continue to access EU opportunities and benefits under any scenario. There is an onus on the British Government to address serious concerns that are raised by the DeSouza case and Brexit, and to provide for meaningful practical solutions to uphold the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement as outlined by the Senator in his contribution. We will continue to strongly engage with the British Government to ensure that the vital citizenship and identity provisions of the Good Friday Agreement are upheld in all relevant policy areas.