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'The UK government keep appealing until you give up': Rights activists hold rallies in Belfast and London

Emma DeSouza is challenging the Home Office’s argument that British immigration law supersedes the Good Friday Agreement.

RIGHTS CAMPAIGNER EMMA DeSouza is to lead a rally in Belfast tomorrow to raise awareness of how there’s no legal basis for the Good Friday Agreement in British law.

In a rally that will address people at City Hall, DeSouza and others will call on the Good Friday Agreement to be upheld in all its parts. 

DeSouza, a 31-year-old woman from Derry, is challenging the British government’s assertion that people born in Northern Ireland can’t declare themselves as Irish, but are born British and must renounce British citizenship to claim their Irish citizenship.

This is contrary to the Good Friday Agreement, but the Home Office’s assertion is that British immigration laws supercede that Agreement. DeSouza is challenging that argument; one British tribunal has found in her favour.

Since her case was put into the public eye, DeSouza has prompted an online campaign, with other Northern Ireland citizens who faced similar obstacles in accessing their Irish rights by tweeting their experiences out under the hashtags “I Stand With Emma” and “We Are Irish Too”.

“We keep hearing from the Irish government and the EU that the Good Friday Agreement needs to be upheld in all its parts, but that’s not what’s happening, and if anything we’re seeing a hardening against these rights.

We voted for that right, Northern Ireland voted 71% in favour of the Good Friday Agreement, to be able to self-declare as Irish or British or both.
There are 1.8 million citizens in Northern Ireland that can declare as British or Irish or both – because of Brexit, that’s kind of complicated for the Home Office to get their head around.

Numbers

DeSouza says that she’s not sure how many will be attending the rally tomorrow, and said that she organised it after people began asking her to, saying that it all happened “quite organically” through social media. The rally in Belfast is happening at noon at City Hall; a sister rally is taking place in London at the Northern Ireland Office.

Actor Siobhán McSweeney, who plays Sister Michael in Derry Girls, has expressed support for the London rally on Twitter, and DeSouza understands that some of those who worked on the show are going to attend.

She says that Northern Irish unionists got involved with the campaign too: “We got all these responses, with people sharing where they were born. So I know that I’m not alone, and the responsibility is on me to try to advocate on their behalf.”

The Good Friday Agreement is for everyone, we all have the same rights and benefits.

She says that since she started her legal battle against the Home Office, others have got in touch with similar stories about their struggle to access their right to citizenship.

DeSouza says that these problems have been going on for years, and the only reason we’re hearing about it now is that “a) we went public, and b) we’re the only people who have stuck with it”.

“They appeal, and appeal, and appeal again until you relent.

When I was speaking at Féile an Phobail in August last year, there was a man who had said he was in an appeal for 3 years when he gave up. He said that he had appealed for so long they couldn’t do it any longer because they had children. I’m sorry I didn’t get his name, because he kind of inspired me.

Parliaments

DeSouza first took the case against the British Home Office after her US husband Jake’s application for an EEA residence card was rejected.

In their refusal letter, the Home Office wrote: “…your spouse is entitled to renounce her status as a British citizen and rely on her Irish citizenship, but until that status is renounced she is as a matter of fact a British citizen”.

 The UK government effectively argued that DeSouza is a British citizen until she revokes it in favour of her Irish citizenship. As she is classed as a British citizen, but is an Irish passport holder, the UK government had classed her as having dual-citizenship, and cannot go through the UK immigration system as an EU national. On this basis, her husband’s application for a residence card was refused.

Her case has also been raised in the Dáil and in the House of Commons in recent months.

“I know that Tánaiste Simon Coveney has been talking to the Home Secretary about this, so it’s really good to see him publicly support the issue.”

DeSouza says that there’s a failing in the Good Friday Agreement that if the British government do something wrong, “there’s nothing to make sure they hold up their end of the bargain”.

This gap in the law is particularly relevant in the context of Brexit, where citizens in Northern Ireland are hoping that through their Irish citizenship, they can gain access to EU rights post-Brexit.

DeSouza says that if these rights are given to Irish citizens, then they should also be given to British citizens from Northern Ireland, or else that would also contravene the Good Friday Agreement: “One set of people can’t have a choice that others don’t.”

“The real purpose is to give people a voice,” DeSouza says. “On Saturday, myself and others will be making a very specific ask to uphold the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. These words are not being translated and we need to make it clear that it’s time to address this issue.”

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