Monday 23 September 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Being a citizen of Ireland comes with responsibilities as well as rights'

Agreeing to Irish-born Muslim convert Lisa Smith's return from Syria should not mean treating her like a victim


Eilis O'Hanlon

At this stage, we're surely only days away from a charity single, perhaps sung to the tune of that England World Cup song: "She's coming home, she's coming home, Lisa Smith's coming home."

And to be clear, the former Air Corps member and Muslim convert, currently being held at a camp in Syria for the wives and children of suspected Isil fighters, has every right to do so. Article 2 of the Constitution declares that "it is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish Nation". The Constitution does state that "loss of citizenship" is a matter for the Dail to decide, but, as far as the legality of Smith's return to Ireland at some point goes, the position seems fairly definitive.

International law forbids making a person stateless. Lisa Smith, who left Dundalk in 2015, originally for Morocco, later for war-torn Syria, has no other citizenship to fall back on. Cutting her adrift would simply pass the problem on to someone else. Ireland has to clean up its own mess.

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She also has a two-year-old daughter, whose welfare must be taken into urgent consideration.

Having said that, Article 9 of the Constitution also demands "fidelity to the nation and loyalty to the State" as "fundamental political duties of all citizens", and it's open to debate whether leaving the country to live under a foreign force which is hostile to the values on which Ireland is founded abides by the spirit of that requirement, and that's equally important.

Right now, it seems that Article 2 is all anybody cares about, and Article 9 is being left by the wayside. The Taoiseach has set the running here, not least with the latest news that the Government is actively seeking ways to bring Lisa Smith home. While strongly denying reports that the government jet is to be sent to pick her up, and despite having no direct contract with the woman herself, three government departments (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Justice) have already held joint meetings to draw up ways to facilitate her return. Why this determination to bend over backwards for her?

Last year, Irish consuls helped 344 people arrested abroad, 318 in medical emergencies, and 271 families who'd tragically suffered a bereavement while out of the country; but I doubt any of them was given this red-carpet treatment.

The Government doesn't even pick up the cost for the repatriation of remains when innocent Irish people die abroad. The huge costs involved for families led one couple in Northern Ireland to establish a charity in memory of their son, who was knocked down and killed in New York in 2013. The Kevin Bell Repatriation Fund has helped around 500 families since, two thirds from the Irish Republic, one third from the North. There are no high-level government meetings for families in these distressing and stressful circumstances.

Quite why the Government is disproportionately exercised about Lisa Smith's welfare is a mystery. It could be a reaction to the UK's treatment of teenager Shamima Begum, who left London for Syria as a schoolgirl to support Isil as a so-called "jihadi bride".

Under pressure from a tabloid media campaign, the British Home Secretary Sajid Javid moved quickly to revoke her citizenship, even though, when she left the country, she was at an age when she would be considered to be a victim of online grooming and statutory rape.

The same cannot be said of Lisa Smith, who, despite being described by friends as someone who "didn't have a lot of sense", was a grown woman, with experience of the world, yet Ireland seems anxious to prove that it does things differently all the same, and that, unlike the UK, it has no intention of dodging its responsibilities. That's commendable. Up to a point. There's a big difference, though, between doing the right thing and going too far in the other direction.

Speaking last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney actually said of Lisa Smith and her child that, while an unusual situation, "we consider her case a consular case" and "like all Irish people, we want to look after them and bring them home".

Talking about the need to "look after" Smith was the final straw. Hers is far from being a normal consular case. Some headlines have even talked about drawing up plans to "rescue" her. She is not a hostage such as Brian Keenan. However naive, she made certain choices. While it's right to not prevent her from returning, let's not pretend that she's a victim.

The Taoiseach's primary role in this circumstance ought to be to reassure the Irish public that their safety supersedes all other considerations. At his press conference a couple of weeks ago when the news first broke, he rightly stated that there would be a security assessment to see what she'd done while in Syria, and that "it's not just as simple as coming here and proceeding as if nothing had happened." Where he misspoke was in going on to say that preventing her return or removing her citizenship would not be "either the right or compassionate thing to do".

Say that she has legal rights, by all means. Say that making political extremists stateless may be a more dangerous course of action. Just please spare us this touchy-feely waffle about compassion.

It's all a far cry from the days of Leo's Fine Gael leadership campaign when he vowed that protecting Irish people from terrorism would be one of his top priorities. Was that just PR for the hustings? Once the Cobra-style National Security Committee was launched with bells and whistles, it soon vanished without trace, to be replaced now by fine words about compassion, all delivered in that soft, concerned voice which the Taoiseach likes to adopt when dealing with human interest stories.

Rather than projecting authority, his intent seems to have been to project concern, tilting his head and nodding rather than standing up straight and delivering a strong message. Who is he reassuring? Who is the intended audience for these remarks? It's as if he's more focused on avoiding criticism for being unfeeling rather than on laying down a firm red line.

Once the word compassion has been deployed, it's meant to end all argument, and it shouldn't. The camp in Syria where Lisa Smith is reportedly being held is, by all accounts, a hellish place, and it's only natural to want to get her child out. But don't infantilise women by treating them as if they're not responsible for their actions. She'll be on The Late, Late Show with her sob story next, if we're not careful.

There certainly wouldn't be this much fuss if Smith was a man. Alexandr Bekmirzaev is a Belarus-born naturalised Irish citizen also being held in a camp in Syria on suspicion of belonging to or supporting Isil. He has a wife and Irish-born child too, whose whereabouts are unknown. Where's the campaign for them?

Sunday Independent

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