By Alper Ali Riza
Subconsciously I had not wanted to lose hope for Cyprus. Sadly, I now have
I BECAME a British citizen on Maundy Thursday last week after a private ceremony at the Old Town Hall in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea on the King’s Road. It was a solemn occasion. I took the oath of allegiance to HM Queen Elizabeth II and made a pledge to respect the rights and freedoms of the UK and uphold its democratic values, and observe and fulfil my duties as a British citizen.
It was a perfect type of a perfect day – a glorious summer’s day in spring when the cherry blossom is at its peak and London looked fantastic. It was fitting too that the venue for my citizenship ceremony was the Old Town Hall in Kensington and Chelsea, although I would have preferred the New Town Hall in the environs of Notting Hill, closer to where I spent most of my life since coming to England as a law student in 1968.
The King’s Road in Chelsea was where we used to hang out occasionally as penniless students pretending to be part of the fashionable swinging London scene; actually we were more part of the bedsitter scene around Notting Hill Gate and Bayswater with only occasional forays into Earl’s Court to drink coffee and talk about zodiac signs with girls at the Troubadour in Old Brompton Road.
Those were indeed the days but then the 1974 war in Cyprus came and went and we stayed on in Britain. In a way it was just as well for people like me. I had just been called to the Bar and there was no way I could begin a career as a lawyer in Cyprus. But it was tough in London too. It still is very difficult to start a career at the Bar but it was much worse in 1974.
I had no money and the prospects for black and ethnic barristers at that time were bleak. It was virtually impossible to get a tenancy in chambers – join a law office in common parlance – so one had to look for exotic alternatives in law centres and pressure groups specialising in areas like immigration and refugee law that frequently involved points of human rights law.
Little was I to know at the time that by the end of the century many in the profession would wish to pass themselves off as human rights lawyers and human rights law would become as popular in practice as it became in the opening years of the 21st Century after the European Convention on Human Rights became part of UK domestic law.
In his song That’s life! Frank Sinatra captures with mellifluous elan my life and times in London all these years. The song’s most memorable lyrics ring so true, for I have indeed been ‘a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king; I’ve been up and down and over and out, and each time I found myself flat on my face I picked myself up and got back in the race.’
I was often down and out in London. Not quite like Eric Blair in George Orwell’s famous novel, but pretty low. Yet I survived and was appointed a QC in 1991 and a part time judge in 1992. And I got married and had children and got divorced – the full catastrophe according to Alexis Zorbas. My daughters are lovely girls and very English like their mother. For obvious reasons I did not imbue them with the Cypriot side of my background. A lot of it was English School British – the English School was not Greek then – anyway and would not have enriched their cultural heritage one iota.
So it was with mixed emotions of bitter sweet nostalgia and a deep gratitude and affection for Britain that I stood to attention before a portrait of the Queen and a drooping Union Jack and pledged loyalty to the Crown and the values of the country to which I owe everything. I am now not just pro-British, as my detractors frequently and accurately point out, I am now a fully-fledged British citizen and proud to be part of the fairest and most tolerant society in the world.
The acquisition of citizenships of convenience are the flavour of our times. Mine was not at all an acquisition of convenience. My decision to acquire British citizenship was a deliberate choice to become British because I feel a patriotic attachment to Britain and a weakening attachment to Cyprus that gets weaker with every failure of talks – the last of which at Crans-Montana was decisive.
I have lived the classic three score and ten years during which the country of my birth has caused me nothing but anguish. For although I love Cyprus I have never been made to feel as though I belong to her; for me she is like the natural mother of an adopted child rejected in infancy. Now I have a country to call my own in which I am free to be myself like I can never be in Cyprus – a damning indictment on the political leadership in Cyprus since independence.
For those of us who do not feel a sense of belonging in the country of our birth, acquiring a nationality of choice is more meaningful than acquiring a passport to help us move freely between the most exclusive parts of the world in Europe and America.
Yet applying to become a British citizen was a complex decision for me. I had been advising and representing people wishing to acquire British citizenship for many years yet failed to apply for it myself. My late father advised me that procrastination and delay are the worst maladies of the soul but every time I neglected his advice it was for a good reason deep inside my psyche. In the case of failing to apply for British citizenship it was because subconsciously I did not want to lose hope for Cyprus. Sadly, I have now lost all hope and became a British citizen within months.
That was the cross I had to bear but for practical reasons the prospect of Britain’s departure from the EU has caused many EU nationals in Britain to apply for British citizenship, and a large number of Brits to discover their Irish roots, and many Brits in Cyprus to enquire about obtaining Cypriot citizenship. I thought this would happen in 2016. People loath being told I told you so but I have good reason to crave my readers indulgence.
When Brexit came into prospect in May 2016, I wrote a piece for the Sunday Mail in which among other things I said ‘the more immediate question is what is going happen to the British community resident in Cyprus if Britain votes to leave the EU on 23 June 2016? Britain and Cyprus recognise dual citizenship and British Cypriots living in Britain have both citizenships. Most British people who live in Cyprus, however, have residence but not citizenship.
Potentially they may be seriously affected by Brexit. British residents are entitled to live in Cyprus because Britain is a member of the EU. Under EU law all citizens of member states are also citizens of the EU entitled to live anywhere in the EU as equal citizens. If Britain votes to leave, British residents in Cyprus will automatically cease to be citizens of the EU and become subject to normal immigration control.’
A British resident of Cyprus called Geoffrey Evans took umbrage at my warning. He misrepresented what I said in a letter to the editor in May 2016 and called it dishonest scaremongering. I believe he owes me an apology.
Alper Ali Riza is a Queens Counsel and a part time judge