On 9 February 1933, Irishman James Gralton was denaturalised and deported from what was then the Irish Free State. He had spent some years in the US, but he was born in County Leitrim in Ireland, to Irish parents, returned often and never renounced or even questioned his citizenship.
Gralton was never charged with a crime, but he was a communist. These days, critics of communism tend to concentrate on the genocidal inhumanity of Soviet Russia and North Korea, but, in Ireland in 1933, communism was understood as atheism. The Roman Catholic bishops who were co-running the country found this intolerable.
Gralton was also guilty of organising regular dances in a venue he built, called Pearse-Connolly Hall after the Irish republican activist and poet, Patrick Pearse and Irish republican activist and founder of the Irish Labour Party, James Connolly. Young people from the area would gather, have fun and listen to Gralton’s speeches on uniting the workers.
Protests organised by Roman Catholic priests quickly turned ugly. There were a series of violent demonstrations and someone got shot. On 9 February 1933, Gralton was arrested, judged to be fundamentally un-Irish and deported to that celebrated hotbed of communism, the United States of America.
In 1933, the unstated but incontestable criteria of Irishness included being Roman Catholic, and eschewing both fun and organised labour—both of which were obviously not quite as antithetical to Irish values and interests as the Roman Catholic bishops would have liked. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having aspirational values, but problems arise when there are real-world consequences for failing to meet unachievable goals.
It is almost impossible for a modern democracy to codify or legislate the values of any nation such that ethnically or so-called culturally pure citizens of that nation can be identified. The recent public denaturalisation of Shamima Begum has brought to light the more immediate question of what it means to be English.
Shamima Begum was born in England in 2000, but left at the age of fifteen, with two of her friends, to join ISIS in Syria. She had three children, all of whom have died. She was discovered by an English reporter while pregnant with her last child in a Syrian refugee camp. She said she wanted to have her baby in England, but seemed relatively unrepentant about her sojourn with ISIS. She has since claimed that she was brainwashed by ISIS and wants a second chance.
On the 19 February of this year, Shamima Begum’s English citizenship was revoked. The English government has stripped many people of citizenship, but usually such people have been guilty of serious crimes and they have all had alternative citizenships. Begum has not been charged with any crime and the government of Bangladesh, where the Home Office claims she has citizenship, has officially stated that “Ms Shamima Begum is not a Bangladeshi citizen.”
For the first time in British history, someone who hasn’t been charged with a crime has been made stateless by the British government, in violation of both British and international law. If she hasn’t committed a crime, what has she done to incur the harshest penalty the Home Office has to deliver?
Begum, who was not involved in any combat or terrorist activity herself, appears to have been denationalised for nothing more a political opinion, formed during her early teenage years. More than one person has suggested that, if Begum were a white girl, the narrative would be more clearly one of grooming and abuse.
Right-wingers might believe that this denaturalisation sends a message to would-be terrorists. In fact, it sends a message that, if you’re brown and English, your citizenship is conditional. The vast majority of denaturalised English citizens are non-white—not because non-white people are more likely to commit crimes, but because non-white people are more likely to have traceable foreign extraction or dual nationality.
In fact, study after study demonstrates that crime is decreasing everywhere, and there seems to be an inverse correlation between immigration and crime rates, for reasons as yet unclear. In England, heavily publicised stories about crime rates among the Muslim population tend to be promulgated exclusively by right-wing media, perhaps because the stories are a combination of misleading statistics and outright lies.
If there is a rise in crime associated with Muslim immigrants, it comprises attacks on them by far-right groups. Study after study shows a genuinely worrying and demonstrable rise in all forms of racism in England, especially racism targeted at Jews and Muslims and those who, in the right-wing imagination, look like them. Unfortunately, those who seem most concerned about anti-Semitism seem least concerned about anti-Muslim bigotry and vice versa.
Ironically, xenophobic attitudes towards people who don’t pass this specious, casuistical purity test contribute to the kind of alienation that leaves many young people vulnerable to radicalisation. Predictably, those most likely to hold xenophobic opinions are least likely to do research on the psychology of radicalisation—or any research at all. But no one born in a democracy wakes up in the morning intent on blowing themselves up on the Metro for no reason.
Begum was clearly involved with people and activities proscribed by English law. She should therefore be given a trial and sentenced according to its results. The point of a justice system is that it applies to everyone equally. Militantly promoting her deportation on the basis that she is evil scum is playing right into the hands of ISIS (or their inevitable replacements), who are, by their own admission, constantly looking for ways to convince Western countries to reject their Muslim citizens, as they are actively encouraging Muslims everywhere to reject Western values.
There will always be problems in nailing down what exactly it means to be British (or Irish or American), because no one seems able to determine what exactly British (or Irish or American) values are—not even those who seem to have a strong emotional attachment to them.
In 2002, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act made it a legal requirement for those seeking naturalisation as British citizens to pass a test on English culture and language called “Life in the United Kingdom.” This evolving series of questions has faced consistent criticism, mostly because it is almost impossible for native English people to pass it. On one occasion, the entire editorial staff of the New Statesman failed the test. It seems perverse to expect recent immigrants to know more about the English experience than university-educated journalists, whose job it is to explain matters of public interest.
It’s possible that the idea of nation states with discrete national characters is nonsensical. Almost everywhere, wherever two countries border, the people living on the border share more with each other than with the general populations of their countries, culturally if not ideologically. In Belgium, the Flemish people share more with the Dutch than they do with the Walloons (who share more culturally with the French). The people of Aragon and Navarre in northern Spain share more culturally with the people of Occitania in southern France than they share with Sevillians. The people of Minnesota share more culturally with the people of Ontario than they do with Texans or Californians. And so on.
There are similar problems in nailing down what a phrase like Western values means. To you and me, it may be a shorthand for freedom and democracy and all that good stuff. To many people in other parts of the world, Western values means something more sinister.
In Iran, for instance, there are people alive today who remember the international political catastrophe referred to by the CIA as Operation Ajax, which mostly involved overturning the first democratically elected government in the history of Iran because they wanted to re-negotiate the fees paid by Anglo-American Oil—hence beginning the current round of political malefaction in that part of the Middle East.
When the Vietnamese Foreign Minister, Nguyen Co Thach, was asked why, after the Khmer Rouge attacked in 1978, he didn’t go to the UN instead of invading Cambodia, he famously said: “Because during the last forty years we have been invaded by four of the five permanent members of the Security Council.”
If we want Muslims (or anyone else) to embrace our Western values, it’s going to be a hard sell if these values include bombing their countries, stealing their resources and acting surprised when they refuse to be grateful for our interventions.
The idea that citizenship of any country—but especially of a democracy—should be dependent on holding the correct opinions or political outlook, is self-evidently ludicrous. I can only assume that every human rights lawyer in England is currently descending on the Home Office to take the Shamima Begum decision apart for the benefit of future generations.
The entire concept of nationality as a monolithic grouping of characteristics, behaviours or values (as most people, including anti-racism advocates, seem to believe) is incoherent. Those values seem to change over time as the zeitgeist demands. In other words, nationality appears to be something we do to people rather than something that happens to them.
In a recent survey, two thirds of Irish people agreed that Ireland is too politically correct, but a more recent study claims that Ireland ranks among the worst places for racism in the workplace, at least among EU countries, and the land of a hundred thousand welcomes has “a worrying pattern of racism” in general.
When the Irish government announced, earlier this year, that a disused hotel in the small of Rooskey, County Leitrim, around twenty kilometres from where James Gralton was born, was to be repurposed as a Direct Provision centre (i.e. a place where refugees are housed while their asylum applications are processed), the site was subject to two separate arson attacks and the plans had to be scrapped.
The government was also forced to abandon plans to house thirteen female asylum seekers in a hotel on Achill Island, after on-going protests gave rise to safety concerns for the already vulnerable women.
In these dark times of nascent right-wing ethno-nationalism in civilised democracies, we should remember that not only is the concept of race unscientific, but the concept of nationality is not entirely coherent either.
In 2016, the president of Ireland issued a posthumous apology for the deportation of Jimmy Gralton, calling it “wrong and indefensible.” He remains the only Irish person to have been deported from Ireland in the history of the country.