Belfast Telegraph

Nelson McCausland: Unionists should beware of those who claim they want to protect GFA only intend to weaponise it

Emma De Souza's case is fundamentally about national identity and not citizenship, argues Nelson McCausland

Emma De Souza and her husband Jake
Emma De Souza and her husband Jake
Nelson McCausland

By Nelson McCausland

On Monday, media attention was on the Middle East, Brexit and the Queen's Speech and, naturally, these overshadowed a Press conference given by a political activist in Belfast. However, it would be remiss of unionists not to reflect on that Press conference.

The activist was Emma De Souza, who was born in Northern Ireland and so is a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

That might seem obvious, but for anyone in doubt, please refer to the British Nationality Act 1981.

However, Emma doesn't want to have British citizenship and is dismayed because a tribunal has ruled that those who are born in the United Kingdom do have British citizenship.

Her argument is based on her misinterpretation of the Belfast Agreement and, over the last few days, Leo Varadkar, Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance have all weighed in behind her, along with Jonathan Powell - remember him, the former aide to Tony Blair?

Peter Weir MLA, a barrister with a good understanding of the Belfast Agreement, has done unionism a service by exposing the fallacy of the case.

The fact is that the Belfast Agreement says that people can "identify" as British, or Irish, or both, and so is about identity, not citizenship.

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Emma will now appeal to another court, but in the meantime, there are some interesting angles to this affair.

First of all, whatever the issue, there always seems to be one wayward unionist around.

In this case, it was Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt, who came out in support of Emma.

Not surprisingly, the UUP soon distanced itself from his stance and members probably breathed a sigh of relief that Mike has ruled himself out of their party's leadership race.

The second is that Irish nationalists make far more use of legal processes than unionists, whether it be through tribunals, or judicial reviews.

Every nationalist demand seems to be transformed into a human right as a prelude to heading off to the High Court. It's an approach that unionists may well be forced to consider.

Thirdly, nationalists show a perseverance in pursuing such cases. Emma has been pursuing her case for four years.

Of all the abilities, stickability is one of the most important and some unionists who have lost it need to recover that spirit of stickability.

Meanwhile, between tribunals, Emma has certainly not been inactive. Last year, she was one of the 1,000 "civic nationalists" who sent an open letter to Leo Varadkar.

That letter looked back to assurances given by Leo Varadkar on December 8, 2017 "to the nationalist people in Northern Ireland".

Those assurances were given against a background of Brexit and around the same time that Theresa May was promoting her notorious "Irish backstop".

Those who signed the bilingual letter said in it that they "cherish their Irish citizenship and identity in the north".

They also accused "political unionism" of "denying respect for our Irish identity and language, marriage equality and access to justice for legacy matters".

That list was notable for its similarity to the list of Sinn Fein demands and, at the point when it was published, I observed that "many people will see the fingerprints of Sinn Fein all over it". This was "civic nationalism" placing itself right behind "political nationalism".

Those who speak most about protecting and implementing the Belfast Agreement may sound benign, but they are actually weaponising the Belfast Agreement. They are using it to poke unionists in the eye, promote division and polarise society. They are using the Belfast Agreement as a 'Trojan horse', a phrase used in another, but related context by Gerry Adams.

When Emma and other nationalists published their "letter to Leo" last November, I commented that, "Unionism needs a clear vision and a coherent strategy, not just to win elections, but to inspire a people, to build a movement and to shape the future".

The events of the past year in relation to Brexit and the vagaries of Westminster politics, together with the mobilisation of "civic nationalism", serve to confirm the need for the vision, the strategy, the inspiration and the movement.

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