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November 23 2000 Express Editorial

THE citizenship laws of Trinidad and Tobago were ill conceived in the first place, and have been manipulated for ignoble purposes ever since.

The Independence Constitution was drafted in a spirit of smug nationalism, to make sure that those who acquired another nationality would lose Trinidad and Tobago citizenship. If they were born with another citizenship they would have to renounce it.

But this took no account of the Trinidad and Tobago Independence Act, passed in the British Parliament. This was the instrument by which Britain granted us our independence. All such Acts deprived people born in the colony concerned of citizenship of the UK and Colonies.

So far so good. But these Acts made a standard exception for anyone whose father or paternal grandfather was born in the UK or colonies. The purpose was to enable Britons who happened to have been born in, say, India, to remain British.

What the framers of our Constitution forgot was that Trinidad and Tobago was unique in that a very large percentage of the population (including probably the entire PNM cabinet) had fathers or grandfathers born in Barbados, Grenada, St Vincent, British Guyana or some other colony. So at Independence they would all lose their citizenship. What made it worse was that a lot of people didn't know where their paternal grandfathers (or in some cases even their fathers) were born, and the 1903 Red House fire didn't help.

A hasty alteration to the Constitution took care of this, but the principle of “no dual citizenship” was only gradually and reluctantly weakened by successive amendments, often for dubious purposes. The most nefarious amendment was the one that enabled T&T citizens who were also citizens of another “Commonwealth Caribbean country” to remain Trinidadians.

The egregious Forbes Burnham, in search of overseas voters, had amended the Guyanese Constitution to give Guyanese citizenship to a wide range of people who had never set foot in Guyana. The PNM government, anxious to keep Indians out of power in Guyana, amended our Constitution to oblige Burnham. Trinidadians who were Guyanese by descent could now vote for Burnham, secure in the knowledge that they would remain Trinidadian.

Of course, it would have been too obviously cynical to confine the amendment to Guyanese. Hence the wording “Commonwealth Caribbean”. But when Grenada's Gairy sought to use it for similar purposes, the Trinidad government wouldn't let him.

With a history like this, it is not surprising that there should now be inconsistencies between the latest versions of the Citizenship Act and the Constitution. But the intent of the successive amendments is clear. Dual citizenship is permitted.

The rights of a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago cannot therefore be diminished by it. One of those rights is to sit in Parliament.

The United States requires naturalised Americans to renounce any other citizenship. But renunciations made under US law need have no force here if we don't want them to. Morally, Mr Winston Peters (the Calypsonian Gypsy) remains a citizen of this country.

He deserves the opportunity to serve his people.

If the PNM should be small-minded enough to object, let them remember that there was once a PNM minister who was a US citizen. His name was Basil Ince.

Right of belonging in jail By: A. H. Hotep

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