Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Questions (38)

Seán Crowe

Question:

38. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if a report will be provided on his latest meeting with a person (details supplied) regarding their legal challenge in relation to the citizenship provisions of the Good Friday Agreement; if he will report on the developments in the case; if the possibility of providing financial support will be examined to ensure they can continue their legal challenge; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53317/19]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

The Tánaiste met Emma DeSouza yesterday in Belfast. I tabled the question to get an update on his Department's support for Ms DeSouza's legal challenge and whether it is examining the possibility of providing financial support to ensure she can continue her legal challenge.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I met Emma and Jake DeSouza yesterday to discuss their case, along with political representatives from three different political parties, which is very encouraging. This was a very constructive meeting and we agreed to remain in ongoing contact as the Government engages with the new British Government to secure a satisfactory solution.

Citizenship and identity provisions are central to the Good Friday Agreement and it is vital that they are upheld. Emma DeSouza is an Irish citizen and this is provided for and protected under the Good Friday Agreement. The decision of the tribunal in the DeSouza case on 14 October does not define the extent of the British Government’s obligations under the agreement. In the Good Friday Agreement, the Governments "recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both". It, therefore, includes an explicit right to both Irish and British citizenship, and an explicit right of people to identify and be accepted as Irish or British, or both. Sensitive and generous approaches by the British Government are needed to ensure this is meaningfully provided for in law.

The Taoiseach has raised the DeSouza case with the British Prime Minister and will do so again. I have discussed the matter with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on a number of occasions, including yesterday, when we met in Belfast. In February, then Prime Minister, Theresa May, acknowledged the serious concerns in this area and pledged to "review the issues around citizenship urgently to deliver a long-term solution consistent with the letter and spirit" of the agreement. I have written to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the British Home Secretary to formally ask that this review be urgently concluded to provide an outcome that is consistent with the letter and spirit of the agreement.

I found Emma DeSouza to be a really impressive individual yesterday, and she is very well informed in regard to what she is trying to do. This is a test case for many other people as well, and she sees it as that. That is why we will continue to work politically with our partners in the British Government to try to get an acceptable resolution to this issue.

I welcome the fact the Tánaiste met yesterday with Emma and Jake DeSouza and a number of political representatives. I acknowledge and commend his work on the case up to now. The Tánaiste's comments that no one should have to go to court to assert their rights to be identified as Irish or British citizens, and their right to be respected, are also welcome and bring clarity from the Irish Government to this case.

This rights case goes to the heart of the citizenship section of the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement is crystal clear on the terms of citizenship. Emma DeSouza is an Irish citizen and it is unacceptable that she should have to go to court to prove it. I know the Irish Government's support is appreciated but, given the fact the British Home Office continues to drag Ms DeSouza through the courts, continued Irish support and defence of the rights of Irish citizens is vital. It would not be unprecedented for an Irish Government to support an Irish citizen who is trying to assert their rights. I again appeal for the Irish Government to do whatever it can in this regard. It is long past time the British amended their laws in regard to citizenship provisions. We all know citizenship and identity provisions are central to the Good Friday Agreement.

The Tánaiste has raised the case with the British Government. What does he believe should happen next? What is the next step we should expect from the British Government?

In regard to legal costs, I explained to Emma DeSouza yesterday that for the Irish Government to essentially fund a legal case in another jurisdiction for an Irish citizen would set a precedent that, as I think she understands, would create difficulties. Therefore, while we want to support Emma and Jake DeSouza, I believe the best way we can do that is through political influence and conversation with the British Government.

My relationship with the Secretary of State, Julian Smith, is very good. I know this is a decision that may well be taken by other Cabinet members in the British Government. Certainly, there was the commencement of a review mechanism under then Prime Minister May and we would like to see that review concluded and providing a successful outcome. While I do not think the Irish Government should be prescribing how the British Government does this, certainly, the Irish Government, as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, has a responsibility to make sure people who were born in Northern Ireland and want to be considered as Irish should not be prevented from accessing entitlements and rights that everyone in Northern Ireland should be able to access as a result of that identity. We will continue to pursue this issue until it gets resolved.

As the Tánaiste knows, the Court of Appeal in the North has granted Emma DeSouza's application to appeal and she is due before the court on Friday of this week. The ongoing legal battle has been a huge financial strain on the DeSouza family and they are currently fundraising online to help raise funds for the legal case. They have had to make huge financial sacrifices. I am aware the Oireachtas justice committee has agreed to write to the Tánaiste to explore practical support for Emma and Jake DeSouza in the context of the Irish Government being co-guarantor. What practical support can the Irish Government give this family? Despite the warm words and promises from the British Government, it is actually using its taxpayers' money to challenge Ms DeSouza's Irish citizenship and a core premise of the Good Friday Agreement in the courts.

It is practical support that is needed and I do not think it would be unprecedented to provide it. I know of other court cases the Irish Government has taken in the past to assert citizen's rights. It would be helpful to the family. Collectively in this House, we are looking for practical ways to offer support. Particularly given the fact the Irish Government is co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, this is one way of practically supporting them.

The most practical way to support Emma and Jake DeSouza is to get a political outcome that solves this problem, and that is what we are going to continue to work to do. I understand the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is also producing a report on this case and it will be published around 16 January. That will be an interesting read. There is activity to try to resolve this case. The best way we can help Emma DeSouza is to resolve this politically in the short term, if we can, so that she does not have to continue to pursue her interests in the courts, which is an expensive and risky process for her financially, and I can totally understand that. We had a good discussion on this yesterday. I said we would keep in contact with Emma and Jake DeSouza, and we will. Hopefully, we will be able to try to make some progress on this issue in the short term to bring an end to the need for ongoing legal challenge.

I intend to take seven more questions before 12 noon, with the co-operation of Members. On behalf of the seven Deputies in the Chamber, I will take it upon myself to write to Santa Claus if they all co-operate with me and we get through the seven questions. I will ask him to be particularly kind to you all. I call Deputy Aindrias Moynihan.