In December 2017, over 200 individuals from within nationalist civic society in the north, from a wide range of sectors including sport, music, the arts, the legal profession, health, education and community, put their names to a letter to Leo Vardkar.
This letter outlined the deep concerns of the nationalist community in the north as a result of Brexit and the pertaining crisis in the northern political institutions due to the denial of rights by political unionism.
I firmly believe that our letter has had a profound effect on the thinking of the Irish Government and that is something in which we all take pride and comfort.
That said, we cannot be complacent. We can be in no doubt that we are in the midst of a generational epoch defining constitutional moment, not of our choosing. However, it should be recalled that the immediacy and seriousness of what is coming down the tracks in a matter of months if not weeks, is not what compelled us to compose our correspondence to the Taoiseach.
It is a fact that the June 2017 Confidence and Supply arrangement that the DUP have with the Tory Government is a breach of the Good Friday Agreement, as it dispels for the absolute avoidance of doubt the pretence that the British Government are independent co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement.
The DUP’s narrow minded selfish political interests are at the heart of the British Government, and will dominate the British Government’s approach to BREXIT.
It is also a fact that the British Govt only ever moves when the Irish Govt moves them. The Irish Govt only ever move, when put under pressure by significant political pressure from Irish America and also the mobilisation of a broad northern nationalist voice. In two elections, March and June 2017, northern nationalism delivered a strong message, giving its verdict on the DUP and unionism running power sharing and partnership government into the ground and asserted the need for a new conversation.
It was within this context, having turned our backs to the partisan politics of Westminster that we naturally looked to Dublin, as a sovereign outlet to protect our interests, and we wrote to the Taoiseach on 8th December 2017.
A delegation of those that would go on to sign the letter had already met with Simon Coveney on 22nd November 2017 and had articulated the content of what would be submitted in the letter. Those who attended the meeting, reported that Coveney was genuine in his appreciation of our concerns and was serious about the Irish Govt taking forward the concerns of the northern nationalist population.
The issues we recorded in our letter to the Taoiseach addressed the issues which we were all organically experiencing in our own spheres of life, in staff rooms, coffee shops, on the sidelines of football pitches – that there was no respect for an Irish identity at the heart of the power sharing arrangement at Stormont, and that the rights based issues which had caused Stormont to collapse a year previous were not safe in the hands of the DUP Tory alliance. We asserted that there had been a denial and refusal of equality, rights and respect towards the section of the community to which we belong, rights such as:
1. Access to Justice :
– All victims of the conflict had the right to avail of mechanisms in accordance with European defined laws, to have access to Justice.
– Compliance with article 2 of the ECHR is not an issue for Stormont, as Stormont is not a sovereign entity, Westminster is, and it is Westminster that signed the ECHR.
– That Westminster seek to then derogate from its ECHR duties, by somehow alleging that their compliance with the ECHR is a matter for political consensus at Stormont, is a deft sleight of hand of Machiavellian proportions.
– This is a distinct matter for the Irish Govt to apply sovereign pressure in respect of.
2. Marriage Equality :
– Leo Varadkar and indeed the Irish Govt, rightly speak with pride in respect of the referendum vote in 2016 which brought Marriage Equality to the south.
– Marriage equality was promoted by the Irish Government as a fundamental rights issue in the referendum yet it is relegated to a matter of political consensus here. Rights are not negotiable or a matter of consensus.
– Many Americans voted for slavery but thankfully it was considered to be an inappropriate practice and was ended.
– Why is it that citizens of England, Scotland, Wales and the South all benefit from marriage equality but it is a right denied to citizens of our micro jurisdiction?
3. Language rights.
– A clear example of the DUP’s sneering contempt for parity of esteem, is their sneering contempt for Acht na Gaeilge. Our language is an intrinsic part of all of our identity as citizens, yet we endure contemptuous taunts, such as Curry My Yoghurt and the cancellation of microscopic bursaries for the Donegal Gaeltacht.
– The fact that this jurisdiction is the only region in Britain or Ireland that makes no statutory provision for the protection of a minority language in accordance with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages which was signed and ratified over 15 years ago.
– Irish is an official language in the Republic of Ireland, with Welsh given statutory protection under the Welsh Language Act 1993, with Scots Gaelic protected under the Achd na Gàidhlig (Alba) 2005.
– Why is it that citizens of Scotland, Wales and the South all benefit from statutory protection for an indigenous language but it is a right denied to citizens of our micro jurisdiction?
In our letter we pleaded that the fact that a majority of voters in the north of Ireland voted to remain within the EU must not be ignored and that we our children and grandchildren should not be forced out of the EU against our democratic will. We stated strongly that the impending reality of Brexit threatened to reinforce partition on this island and revisit a sense of abandonment as experienced by our parents and grandparents.
RESPONSE TO THE LETTER
In terms of a response from the Taoiseach, there were his immediate public remarks on 8th December 2017, the day that we sent the letter, wherein he stated;
“To the nationalist people in Northern Ireland, I want to assure you that we have protected your interests throughout these negotiations. Your birth right as Irish citizens, and therefore as EU citizens, will be protected. There will be no hard border on our island. You will never again be left behind by an Irish Government.”
The Taoiseach’s office made contact with me and suggested a representative group of those who signed the December letter meet with An Taoiseach. I agreed to this suggestion and this meeting subsequently took place in Dublin on Tuesday 27th February. The representative group consisted of the five of us, John Finucane, Professor Colin Harvey from Queens, Conor Patterson from Newry, Mairead Ní Chonghaile, Conal McFeely and Dolores O’Reilly from Derry, Peter Canavan from Tyrone.
An Taoiseach was joined at the meeting by An Tanaiste, Simon Coveney, and a number of governmental officials. The meeting lasted over two hours and we covered all of the issues which we had urged An Taoiseach to consider in our letter including the implications for Irish citizens in the north as a result of Brexit, blockages to access to justice and addressing legacy issues, Acht na Gaeilge, Marriage equality and the defence and protection of the Good Friday Agreement.
We gave a good representation of the core issues and felt that both Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney listened and took our views on board. Since then I have remained in contact with officials from the DFA and other Irish government officials.
– 30 April – addressed All Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit
– 8 June – Welcome address by Taoiseach at Féile an Phobail.
– 19 June – Met party leaders of Labour, Greens, SF and Fianna Fáil in Dáil Éireann.
Our initiative has resonated deeply with the Irish Government and has conditioned their policy.
However it is the constitutional issue of our day, BREXIT, which provides us with the greatest challenge, and is one to which we require to remain alert and alive.
I regret to state, that we are sleep walking into a Constitutional Disaster.
The DUP are nihilistic wreckers who do not have anyone’s interests other than their own narrow party political interests. There can be no regulatory alignment on this island, and Bangor must be as British as Finchley, unless you are gay and want to be married or seek to live a life through the medium of Irish with statutory protection.
A Parliamentary response from Claude Juncker to Martina Anderson MEP last week, provided a dark insight into the abyss, into which we are staring as Irish citizens living in the north. Despite earlier commitments, recent UK and EU statements now point to Irish passport holders resident here being stripped of access to almost all active EU rights following BREXIT.
This would render Irish citizens here with only the same ‘dormant’ EU rights held by Irish citizens who live outside Europe. In effect, we would be on a par with Irish people living in New York, Canada or Australia, in terms of our Irish citizenship.
President Junker of the EU Commission in response to Martina Anderson noted that:
• The north would no longer be in an EU member state,
• whilst Irish citizens would remain EU citizens, benefits from UK participation in EU programmes would end with BREXIT.
• This position would leave Irish citizens here with access to almost none of the following EU rights:
1. Political rights to stand as and vote for MEPs; The right to vote for an MEP is normally tied into the member state of residency
2. Continued use of the European Health Insurance Card; Access to EHIC normally involves billing the health authorities in the EU member state of residence –e.g. the NHS.
3. Studying elsewhere and being able to avail of EU student fee rates. Access to EU student fees rates normally requires residency in an EU member state for three of the previous five years;
So, without special arrangements, access in practice to these EU rights would be lost to Irish citizens resident here – unless of course they left and went to live somewhere else in the EU.
In reality this means:
1. We will be disenfranchised. The democratic rights of us Irish and EU citizens in the north, include the right to direct representation in the European Parliament, which needs to be protected. We must continue to lobby the Irish Government to ensure that right is protected by creating a mechanism for people in the north to continue to elect an MEP, i.e. by means of a single constituency.
2. If you are on holiday in France, and fall, you will not be able to access their Health Service without paying or having medical insurance. An elderly person requiring medical assistance such as dialysis will in effect be grounded, as they will not be able to obtain insurance.
3. If you have a child wanting to study in Trinity or UCD, you will have to pay. For example QUB undergraduate annual tuition fees for NI domiciled students are £3,925; the same figure is applied for EU students – whereas the figure for international students is between £13k (classroom based courses) and up to £34k for clinical medical courses. If you have a child aged under 16 today, who has ideas of studying in the south, as things stand they will be treated as a non EU national and will be charged accordingly as you must be resident in an EU state for 3 of the preceding 5 years so if Brexit happens next March 2019, a child now aged 16 won’t have the requisite 3 of 5 years to attend Trinity or UCD.
4. Other rights denied include the fact that the ability to take up work is dependent on mutual qualification recognition, which will leave with BREXIT. The right to be joined by family members (who are not EU/EEA nationals) are an inherent part of EU treaty rights to work and study, which also leave with BREXIT.
Another practical scenario is if we take the following examples of three resident neighbours all requiring a home help or residential care after BREXIT:
1. Person A: An Irish citizen who identifies as Irish born here,
2. Person B: A British citizen who identifies as British born here,
3. Person C: An Irish citizen who has lived almost all her life here but was born just over the border in a Donegal hospital;
As things stand the local health Trusts will be debarred from providing Person C with a home help or residential care after BREXIT, which will usually only be available to British Citizens. Person B will continue to be able to receive the service. In order for Person A to receive the service he or she would have to identify as British and prove and rely upon British citizenship. This conflicts with the provisions in the GFA.
There are worrying signs of a U-turn on publicly expressed commitments in relation to Irish citizens in the north. The issue is only mentioned in the “NI section of the draft EU Withdrawal Agreement” in the non-binding preamble.
In April the UK BREXIT Minister declined to clarify which EU rights would be included in the arrangements, when asked by John Grogan MP at Westminster. At the same time the Tánaiste told the Oireachtas when asked by David Cullinane TD that the rights in question were not confirmed and needed further engagement.
Put simply, we are frogs in a pot of water, and our rights are slowly being boiled and are evaporating before our eyes. Nobody is screaming stop. We are sleep walking into second class citizenship.
Exit day is set for March 2019. There is a transitional period currently till December 2020, but essentially there is a cliff edge whereby access to EU rights, as things stand, will be curtailed, unless there is a return to the commitments of December. This matter is to be resolved in the current Phase II period of negotiations. Time is however, running out.
Citizenship rights, human rights, and the rights contained in the Good Friday Agreement need to be protected from the DUP/Tory Brexit agenda which is scrapping the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and WE NEED the Irish government to hold firm and ensure there is no regression on rights. Mobilised nationalism needs to ensure the political parties representing us give proper expression to the our demands as above.