Emma DeSouza and Soldier F Reveal the Colonial Contempt of the UK

The British government has been unilaterally reneging on its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, showing nothing but contempt for the citizens of its colony in the North of Ireland.

It’s hard to be surprised about anything that relates to the north of Ireland if you actually understand the place. Outsiders expressed surprise at the collapse of the Assembly, the collapse of the talks to return to the Assembly, and now they sit slack-jawed watching the Democratic Unionist Party’s intransigence in Westminster, waiting for a monster without eyelids to blink.

Spend some time in the north and it all becomes a little predictable; you know what flags will go up where and when, you lose count of the crucifixes with “Jesus Saves” written on them stuck onto utility poles and you take it for granted that you and your neighbours, be they republican, unionist or otherwise, are little more than an afterthought in the minds of the British Government, who have been making decisions for the north since the collapse of the Assembly in January 2017.

I had to rebuke myself recently for feeling something approaching shock when reading the story of Emma DeSouza. DeSouza is a Derry-born Irish citizen, who, in the process of applying for residential status for her American husband, was told that to live in Derry, she and her husband would have to apply through the UK’s immigration process, one more cumbersome than that of the EU. This made no sense, DeSouza argued. She, an Irish, and thus European, citizen, was bringing her husband back to an EU city and to apply through the British system, she would have to have British citizenship, which she has never had. She was wrong, the Home Office told her. By their definition, she (and everyone like her) was a British citizen because she had been born in the north of Ireland.

DeSouza’s story is how I found out that I am a British citizen. The British Government has failed to fully implement the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) by writing it into law and to recognise the fact that the Agreement allows for people born in the north to claim Irish citizenship, British citizenship, or both. They also never disclosed this fact, leaving thousands of Irish passport holders who have never claimed British citizenship to learn through DeSouza’s on-going legal battle with the Home Office that the British consider them citizens. While the obvious intrusion of having a citizenship that you have actively rejected your entire life secretly hoisted upon you is bad enough, it comes with an even worse asterisk: in March, the British Government changed their definition of a European Economic Area citizen to exclude those who also hold British nationality, making it so that northern-born Irish citizens will have no access to their EU rights after Brexit.

The Good Friday Agreement is such a renowned document because it did the impossible: it struck a balance between the warring factions of the north and arrived at a compromise that was mostly acceptable to everyone. Every existential argument about the north boils down to one simple question: do you see the six counties currently known as Northern Ireland and the people within them as British or Irish? The GFA is a flawed document, which gives equal weight to colonial and anti-colonial viewpoints, but it enshrined into law a common sense position when it legislated for the people of the north to choose their own nationalities.

Where the Agreement falls down is that it enshrines the governments of Britain and Ireland as “neutral” guarantors. If the idea that Britain regards Ireland as anything other than its plaything was to be entertained, it should no longer be after these revelations and the recent comments of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley. Discussing the role of British soldiers during the Troubles, specifically in the context of a discussion about the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry committed by the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, Bradley said that army killings of civilians had not been crimes, but rather actions committed by “people acting under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duty in a dignified and appropriate way”.

Bradley’s subsequent apologies were too little and too late, she had given away the game and exposed the mindset of the British state when it comes to Ireland. If Bradley was actually, truly contrite, if she had realised that it is a crime to shoot an unarmed civilian regardless of whether or not you’re wearing a uniform, would the British Ministry of Defence have pledged to fund the legal costs of Soldier F, the only soldier to be charged with murder for his role in Bloody Sunday? How can the British Government claim that they regard the people who protest their presence and actions in Ireland as anything other than colonial pawns for them to slaughter when they fund the defence of a man accused of the murder of two Irish civilians and the attempted murder of four more? Bradley and the Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson had, in their respective incompetence and hawkishness, distracted from the fact that the successive governments of Blair, Brown, Cameron – whose Bloody Sunday apology now looks almost saintly in comparison – and May had failed to write the GFA into British law.

The role of the Irish government as co-guarantors could have been expected to mean that they would hold the British Government to account and, through the EU, ensure that that the British at least stuck to the basics of the Agreement. However, the attitudes of various Irish governments in the decades since 1998 (usually a coalition led by either of the centre right parties, Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, currently a minority government led by Fine Gael, supported by Fianna Fáil through confidence and supply) have ignored the north unless they can snipe at Sinn Féin, digs which are currently being uttered through concern trolling calls for the republicans to take their seats in Westminster. While claiming that the nationalists and the republicans of the north need representation amid the Brexit mess, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has promised the people of the north that they will “never again be left behind by an Irish Government”. This promise was shown to be empty when it became clear that the Withdrawal Agreement protected northern trade, but not the north’s Irish citizens, again because they are considered to be British citizens.

Parties in the Republic of Ireland other than Sinn Féin have tended to treat the north as a headache where responsibility is best abdicated to the British. A recent move by Fianna Fáil to partner with the SDLP can be seen as a transparent attempt to turn up the pressure on Sinn Féin to return to the Assembly. What this typical liberal sneering of those to their left ignores is that Sinn Féin had an agreement to return that the DUP reneged on. The idea that the nationalist people of the north want a return to either Stormont or Westminster is laughable when Sinn Féin continue their electoral dominance over the SDLP, a nominally nationalist party who take their seats (on the occasions they win them) in Westminster.

It would be reasonable to surmise from the skulduggery of the British state and the all-knowing all-ignoring inaction of the Irish state that this is a lesson in not putting your faith in a nation state, regardless of it being one borne of colonialism or the fight against it. Yet, the special nature of the Irish struggle for national liberation was recognised by Engels himself. In a letter to Karl Kautsky, Engels wrote that the Irish (and the Poles) were “internationalists of the best kind if they are very nationalistic”, a recognition that for Ireland to take its seat at a world internationalist table, it would need to first be free of colonial input.

The path to that freedom has been simple and clear since the GFA; when the time comes, the Secretary of State calls a border poll where northerners vote on reunification and the matter gets settled. There are inherent biases in this process since the Secretary of State is a member of the British Government, which has shown itself to be committed to the maintenance of its Irish colonial outpost. Yet it seemed like there was nothing they could do if the polling numbers were on the republicans’ side. Enter Karen Bradley again: the Secretary of State saying that only British citizens can vote in British referenda, the border poll included. Again, despite her backtracking, the damage had been done. When you pair that with the Home Office’s advice to DeSouza, that she renounce the British citizenship she never claimed, you see things falling into line.

Being a northern nationalist often feels like being constantly let down. Sinn Féin aren’t far enough to the left economically; the SDLP are to their right and lacking Sinn Féin’s republican bona fides; the Irish Government ignore and neglect you; and the British Government are either treating you with the expected disdain or telling you that it wouldn’t be a crime for a member of their security forces to put a bullet in your head. At a time when nationalist tails should be up, when a border poll seems more likely to both happen and succeed, we are instead told that we must choose between accepting the Britishness the GFA allowed us to discard, or to abandon the method by which we could peacefully achieve a united Ireland.

It can be fun to laugh at the latest tantrum in right wing rags like The Spectator any time Ireland does anything to distance itself from England. They are handy reminders that despite rigging the game so that they will always have the upper hand, these people are still miserable at the individual level and unable to savour their victories because they don’t come with thank you notes from the savage leprechauns they and their ilk have civilised. Then, you hear the words of the Bloody Sunday families or the Ballymurphy families, and you see the ordeal DeSouza has had to go through just to assert the Irishness we believed to be a given. You remember how things are for you at an individual level and things begin to look bleak all over again.