‘Contrary to natural justice’—Mohammed Ali Somjee and the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1956

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2020), Volume 28

National eligibility and residency rules are still a divisive subject in Irish sport today.

By Cian Manning

The late 1970s saw the Irish squash rackets scene dominated by a Pakistani player named Mohammed Ali Somjee who harboured aspirations to represent Ireland in international tournaments. Married to a native of Drogheda, Somjee was about to realise this ambition in 1979 when the eligibility rule was changed by the Irish Squash Rackets Association (ISRA). In a bid to save his hopes of playing international squash, he applied for Irish citizenship but was denied it under the provisions of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1956. Consequently, he and his wife took a legal case in the High Court against the minister for justice and the attorney general in December 1979. National eligibility and residency rules are still a divisive subject in Irish sport today, from Jack Charlton’s use of the ‘granny rule’ for the Republic of Ireland national soccer team to current Irish rugby squads, which have had South African- and New Zealand-born players among their number, but it was in the minority sport of squash that the debate led to legal proceedings.

Above: Mohammed Ali Somjee (left) receiving the Club Orange Open Squash Championship cup from Bill Dunne in 1978. Also pictured is Bernard O’Gorman, runner-up. (Irish Squash Review)

Somjee and the Irish squash circuit

Mohammed Ali Somjee (most newspapers refer to him as ‘Mohammed Ali’, no doubt as a nod to the boxer Muhammad Ali) had arrived in Ireland in March 1977 and was the pre-eminent squash player on the Irish circuit at the time of his court case. He was a coach at the Star and Crescent Club in Drogheda and was considered the top seed in many of the competitions in which he participated in Ireland. Notable victories included the Club Orange graded tournament at Leopardstown in 1978, the Connacht Open Squash Championship in 1979 and an impressive three in a row at the Waterford Glass Open from 1977 to 1979. Other successes included the Coca-Cola West of Ireland Open Graded Squash Championship in Galway and the Munster Open, which he won in 1979.

Upon his arrival in Ireland Somjee had been informed of the three-year residency rule, which would have qualified him to play for the Irish national team. It was deemed only a matter of time before he would be selected. But in August 1979, two years and eleven months into his residency in Ireland, the ISRA changed the rule to criteria that the Pakistani was unable to fulfil. The previous rule stated that ‘a player must be resident in the country for three years before being eligible for selection’. This rule had allowed New Zealand-born Ben Cranwell (see sidebar) to play for the Irish team. Under the same criteria, Somjee would have become eligible to play for the national team, but now the rule was changed:

‘To be eligible to play for Ireland a player must have been born in Ireland or have at least one Irish parent [and in addition] must have spent two of the last five years in Ireland. Notwithstanding the above, any player who has previously played for Ireland will continue to be eligible to do so.’

Thus Cranwell could continue to represent Ireland at international level while Somjee now had numerous hurdles to overcome to fulfil the ISRA’s new eligibility stipulations. The journalist Stephen McGrath, writing in the Irish Press, noted wryly of the rule change that it was ‘very “Irish” as the three-year residency law still applies in England, Scotland and Wales’.

Above: Irish international rugby player Bundee Aki—national eligibility and residency rules are still a divisive subject in Irish sport today. (Irish Sun)

Somjee v. the minister for justice and the attorney general  

Somjee applied for Irish citizenship but was refused under the terms of the Irish Citizenship and Nationality Act, 1956. He and his Irish-born wife then took a High Court action against the minister for justice and the attorney general, arguing that certain provisions of the act ‘were unconstitutional and contrary to natural justice’. Their case was that the act was discriminatory on ‘the grounds of sex insofar as a man who was an alien could not become an Irish citizen on marrying an Irish woman’ whereas, under Section 8 of the same legislation, a woman who was not a native of the Republic of Ireland could become a citizen on marrying an Irish man.

The case was brought before Mr Justice Keane, who noted that it raised ‘a novel point of law’ and concluded that:

‘The sections under attack provided for a diversity of arrangements as between male aliens and female aliens. The latter, upon marriage, were entitled automatically, at their option, to Irish citizenship, whereas the former were not. This did not mean that male aliens were precluded from acquiring Irish nationality upon marriage, but the legislature had unquestionably made different arrangements as far as they were concerned.’

Thus it was not the act of marriage in itself that conferred Irish citizenship on an alien or foreign national but rather it was the law enacted by the Oireachtas that conferred such ‘privileges and burdens upon aliens’. It was under this understanding that Justice Keane deemed that Mrs Somjee had not been deprived of any right in law under the provisions outlined in the Constitution. Additionally, under Article 9 (1) (2), there was no infringement of the principle that no person might be excluded from Irish nationality and citizenship by reason of the sex of that person.

Aftermath

By October 1980 Somjee was playing for the Bann View Squash Club in Portadown, and the following month he competed in an intercounty tournament at Nottingham. While playing with his new club, Somjee commented to the Irish Press that he ‘would like to play for Ireland but they [the ISRA] change the rules when it suits them. I think they changed the rule specifically to keep me out.’ That November saw Somjee win his third major squash title in his fourth final against his great rival Richie Power of Waterford, then the Irish number one. The victory came in the Commercial Bank Leinster Open Graded Championship at Fitzwilliam. Clearly the issues surrounding the ISRA’s nationality rule and his High Court action had not affected the Pakistani player’s performance on the squash court.

By February 1981, however, Somjee had departed the Irish squash scene to concentrate on the English circuit, which was more competitive and financially more lucrative. Stephen McGrath concluded of Somjee’s Irish exit that ‘Ali was undoubtedly the country’s best player while he was here, and he was a tremendous attraction in all tournaments North and South’. Furthermore, the Irish Squash Review (under the editorship of David Walsh, now editor of the sports section of the Sunday Times) summarised that:

‘The departure of Mohammed Ali from Ireland brings to an end an era which saw the Pakistani contribute so much to the game in this country. An interprovincial player with Leinster, Ali did much to elevate the standard of our best home players and his battles with Richie Power in particular are easily recalled. There was always the feeling that Ali’s rich squash talents were never fully exploited for the benefit of the game in this country and his departure serves to endorse that view.’

Perhaps Somjee could have been better utilised by the ISRA to further the development of the game in Ireland. Calling on those born outside of Ireland, from soccer players such as Ray Houghton and John Aldridge to C.J. Stander and Bundee Aki in rugby, has brought undoubted benefits to other sports. The case of Somjee was certainly a loss to the squash scene in this country.

Cian Manning is an independent researcher from Waterford.

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