Depriving fighters in a foreign war of citizenship is repugnant and regressive
Published 16/08/2014 | 02:30
The recent phenomenon of young Irish citizens travelling to Syria to fight with anti-government rebels throws up difficult questions about the nature of citizenship in our republic.
While many of these young men are wrongly assumed by some to be "jihadists", and are freely described as such, it very much remains to be seen whether they actually are.
There are many reasons for joining forces with the Syrian rebels - not all of which are to do with religion - and some of them could be regarded as compelling on any analysis.
It is not the first time, and is unlikely to be the last, that Irish citizens will travel abroad to take up arms in a foreign conflict.
Unlike some countries, Ireland does not demand exclusive fealty from her citizens, who are permitted to hold citizenship in other states.
Although our constitution describes "fidelity to the nation and loyalty to the State" as fundamental duties of all citizens, it does, by implication, permit of loyalty and fidelity to other states and nations. As such, there is no obvious conflict between being an Irish citizen and fighting in a war to which Ireland is not a party. The issue of presumed jihadists returning to the West from various global conflicts is one that has the British government particularly vexed.
Earlier this week, its most senior police officer warned that the return of "hundreds" of British jihadists could pose a threat to national security if the Islamic State (IS) loses battles in Iraq and Syria.
Bernard Hogan-Howe, the head of Scotland Yard, has even said that the return of British jihadists was his "biggest concern", owing to the potential pressure they could place on police and security services.
The recent trend there to strip presumed jihadists fighting abroad of their UK citizenship is worrying.
This came to a head in a case before the UK Supreme Court last year involving Hilal Al-Jedda, a man whom the Home Secretary had stripped of UK citizenship on the grounds that to do so would be "conducive to the public good". He had been arrested by US forces during the Iraq conflict. This effectively left Al-Jedda without citizenship of any country - the court held that this could not be done.
The response of the UK government was simply to change the law to allow their own citizens to be rendered stateless, even if they held no other citizenship.
In the words of one member of the House of Lords, the government simply decided to "blow a raspberry" at the judges.
The fixation on the part of the UK government with de-naturalising its own citizens is, no doubt, driven by the concern as to what such men might do if and when they return to the UK radicalised and battle hardened. The fear that they could be faced with a home-grown, foreign trained cohort of radicalised jihadists is not an imaginary one.
But the response of the UK government is extraordinary. Stripping troublesome groups of their citizenship is a practice perfected by such totalitarian regimes as the Third Reich and the government of Saddam Hussein - just ask the Kurds.
Other proponents of the practice include former president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko, and the Burmese military junta.
Depriving a person of citizenship is not just a profound denial of rights - it is a denial of the right to have any rights. As long ago as 1958, even the US Supreme Court described the practice as "a form of punishment more primitive than torture".
It is no coincidence that it was in the aftermath of World War II that most civilised nations committed to the goal of reducing statelessness. At the time, Europe was awash with millions who no longer had a country to call home and who were effectively deprived of the protections that we all take for granted as citizens of a state.
It is with some degree of apprehension that one might note that similar powers would appear to be available to the Minister for Justice here. Irish legislation allows a naturalised citizen to be deprived of citizenship where he has been shown to "have failed in his duty of fidelity to the nation and loyalty to the State". Whatever that means. While most learned academic comment has assumed the statutory power in question most likely to be unconstitutional, it is sobering to think that the State has the power to render stateless those who are considered a nuisance or a danger.
This is something that most other western democracies would consider unthinkable. Where a citizen transgresses or rebels against the authority of the state they are punished - not banished.
It is also worth noting that Ireland can prosecute any of its citizens for participating in terrorist activities of any sort anywhere in the world - as can the UK. The problem represented by the situation in Syria, however, is that nobody considers the rebels to be terrorists. Indeed, the international community shares their broad aim of overthrowing the vile regime of Bashar al-Assad.
There is something repugnant about somebody being stripped of citizenship, not because they have done something inherently wrong, but rather because they have done something that is potentially right, but for the wrong reason.
It is to be hoped that we will not seek to imitate our closest neighbours in their approach to this difficult issue.