Thursday August 13, 2020

Comment: Without a senator from Northern Ireland the promise of a shared island rings hollow

The programme for government commits to deepening north-south relations but the failure to include a Northern Irish nomination to the Seanad is not a good start

1st July, 2020
Emma DeSouza and Jake, her husband, pictured during legal proceedings that ultimately confirmed the right of Irish people in Northern Ireland to be considered Irish from birth. Picture: PA

With the title Our Shared Future and a section on “a shared island”, the programme for government does not hold back in delivering an ambitious framework to deepen north-south, east-west relations, the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and all-island cooperation. But has the objective of a “shared island” fallen at the first hurdle?

As an island we jointly face the herculean task of achieving a smooth Brexit transition, which will be compounded by a lack of legislation around key provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and the economic impact of both Brexit and Covid-19.

It had been widely reported that, should the programme be ratified and a new government formed, there would be a Northern nomination to Seanad Éireann. This news was well received as citizens in the North have been looking to Dublin to safeguard their rights. Many worry that the British government is abdicating its responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland. In its quest to place British sovereignty above all else, there is a real and tangible fear that many of our hard-won rights are under threat.

This concern was brought to a fever pitch with the British government’s position in the long-running legal challenge my husband and I took for me to be accepted as Irish under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. The British government argued that the people of Northern Ireland remain British citizens even if they identify as Irish, and it pursued the case for almost five years before making a concession, raising serious concerns over whether citizens can rely on the rights and protections of an international treaty when it matters most.

This was but one example of a deterioration of the good faith that is essential in maintaining the finely balanced nature of the Northern Ireland peace accord.

Following the case, I was one of the contenders for the Northern nomination as an independent candidate who represents the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and the next generation of rights activists. I had considered myself unlikely to be gifted with such an opportunity, even after correspondence from both Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, but expected nonetheless that a strong Northern candidate would be selected.

In the end, the fabled Northern nomination disappeared upon ratification of the deal, and while personally disappointed, it is the lack of representation that has dealt the heaviest of blows.

We are entering a period of great uncertainty, arguably the greatest challenge to the Northern Ireland peace accord since 1998. Both the Good Friday Agreement and the Common Travel Area will come under increasing pressure and scrutiny, and Northern Irish experience will be required.

Brexit poses real difficulties in adhering to the parity-of-esteem principles of the Good Friday Agreement. For the past two decades – thanks to the blanket of EU law and the Good Friday Agreement – Irish and British citizens, and anyone in-between, have had an open space to slowly soften identity lines.

We’ve already seen in the recent Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey a retrenchment of traditional political allegiances. Northern Ireland-born British citizens stand to lose their EU rights and entitlements, while Northern Ireland-born Irish citizens will retain their EU citizenship rights and entitlements.

The programme for government does not include a tangible solution to this problem, and questions will be raised as to whether seeking “strong commitments” from the British government on the European Convention of Human Rights will be enough.

British-Irish relations will be the cornerstone of a successful Brexit transition and of maintaining the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. In this regard the coalition government is ambitious, with aims of enhancing the role of the British-Irish Council and British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, but building political bridges requires political participation and cooperation.

A Northern nomination to the Seanad would have been a good first step. Instead representatives from Northern Ireland have been excluded.

Taoiseach Martin has confirmed that there will be a newly formed unit within his department to work towards a consensus on a shared island, but this announcement does not make up for the row-back on the idea of a Northern nomination. The concept of a shared island has been undermined by that decision and it has reignited old fears that we in the North may be left behind.

I envisage an Ireland that is open, inclusive and far-reaching, where being a part of the Irish nation doesn’t end at the border or the Irish Sea. As an Irish citizen who has long fought for my right to be accepted as Irish, I long for participation, and it is with this in mind that I welcome the commitment to the referendum on extending presidential voting rights to Irish citizens abroad, a result that can be largely attributed to the efforts of Billy Lawless, former senator for the diaspora.

That vision I have of a broad Irish nation feels further away now. In the recent nominations to the Seanad, there is no senator for the diaspora and no senator for the people of Northern Ireland. There’s no representation for Irish citizens outside of the Irish state. That doesn’t feel inclusive but rather appears retrograde, insular and exclusive.

As Diarmuid Ferriter wrote in the Irish Times last week, “the howls of protest about the supposed interference of pesky Northerners in ‘our’ political business in the Republic has been very revealing about the extent of the partitionist mindset”.

If there is to be a shared island, then this mindset needs to be challenged. It is my hope that the Irish government will remedy this vacuum of representation in any way it can and will work towards building a shared island, not one that ends at the border.

Emma DeSouza is a citizens rights campaigner and public speaker who recently reaffirmed the citizenship and identity provisions of the Good Friday Agreement with a high-profile legal challenge against the British Home Office

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