A Shannon man living in Denmark since 1981 is to be refused citizenship of his adopted country for refusing to comply with new laws which insist he must shake hands with the Mayor of Copenhagen.
Billy O’Shea (61) a translator and writer in Copenhagen in recent months applied to become a citizen of Denmark. The processing for citizenship takes up to two years in the country and has a number of criterion such as recording every foreign trip for a period of 12 years, having no criminal records and the compulsory attendance of a ceremony in one’s local municipality where they must shake hands with the local Mayor when receiving the document. This according to O’Shea “was the final straw” and it will now make him the first person in history to be denied Danish citizenship for refusing to shake hands.
Originally from Aidan Park in Shannon, Co Clare, Billy maintained the stipulation was introduced to prevent religious extremists from receiving citizenship. “We have a minority government which is governing with the support of a right wing party called the Danish Peoples Party a bit like Theresa May and the DUP so the tail is wagging the parliamentary dog and the politicians feel under pressure to come up with populist initiatives that will defend Denmark and Danish culture against this apparent imaginary tide of foreign culture that is sweeping over us, I say imaginary because there is no evidence of anything of the sort”. He referred to the introduction of a burqa law despite he not seeing one in his 37 years in the country and a law that enabled the courts to impose harsher punishments depending on which postcode you come from. “People are no longer equal before the law. If you’re from an immigrant area you could be punished more harshly under the law, these developments are worrying especially in a country like Denmark which has a very old and solid democratic tradition”.
He added, “I have to say right from the start I have no objection to shaking hands with anyone, I’ve no religious objections of any kind to shaking hands with people and I also find the practice of certain religious extremists to refuse to shake hands of the opposite sex to be repugnant and I in no way support that. My problem with the compulsory handshake is this, when people became citizens previously they were invited to a welcoming ceremony at which the local Mayor usually representing the authorities would shake hands with them and that would be fine and everybody would be happy. If you invite guests to your home you go to the front door and you shake hands with them to welcome them, the other situation corresponds more that you put a sign up before your front door where it says everybody must shake hands with me or else there will be trouble, in other words you’re threatening people and you’re telling them they must show respect or else something bad will happen in this case they won’t get their citizenship. They seem to be completely different situations from my point of view, one is compatible with democracy where we’re equal citizens and we shake hands as a sign of mutual respect, the other is not in my opinion is not a sign of respect at all it is a sign of civility, we cannot shake hands if one of us is on their knees”.
A recent poll by Norstat for Altinget and Jyllands-Posten found that 52 percent of the Danish population were against a compulsory handshake. “This new law is incompatible with Danish traditions and with Danish democracy,” O’Shea said. Not all applicants could be as vocal on their views as they could risk deportation and it is one reason why the past pupil of St Patricks Comprehensive is protesting.
Frank Jensen is the Mayor of Copenhagen, he has been in contact with O’Shea since the father of three published an opinion piece on Politken, a Danish daily broadsheet newspaper. “Frank Jensen is somebody I have a great deal of respect for and I’m very sorry to have to put him in this position, I wrote to him and I told him that and he wrote back and said he didn’t like the law anymore than I did but the law is the law and if that’s the way it is he will have to refuse me my citizenship when that day comes. I got a personal message from him, he is a Social Democrat, I know he doesn’t like the law and he is somebody I respect a great deal but that is the situation”.
In 1999, he completed his Masters at the University of Copenhagen and in the following year was awarded a gold medal by the university for a theoretical paper on the interaction between culture and information in translation. This presentation saw him shake hands with the Queen, Margrethe II of Denmark which he had no objection to. “I had no problem at all shaking hands with the Queen, I was privileged and honoured to shake hands with the Queen, I have no problem shaking hands with anybody as long as somebody isn’t holding a gun to my back, that’s the only time when I will refuse, typical Irish”.
The parliamentary committee considering the newly introduced law also received a letter from Mr O’Shea. He received a reply from Minister of Integration and Immigration Inger Stojberg which said “if you do not shake hands you will not become a citizen”.
One of his reasons for putting in the application is that he plans to live in Denmark for the remainder of his life, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that I’m going to stay here for the rest of my life. And if you’re going to stay in the country for the rest of your life then you should make the commitment to become a citizen”. It was his way of giving thanks to the country where he has spent more than half his life. “Respect has to be mutual or else it isn’t respect in my opinion. The group of people this affects are in work, they have no criminal record, they are not receiving any handouts from the State, they’ve worked in Denmark, paid huge taxes, the highest Scandinavian taxes for years and many of them for decades like myself which have helped to pay for the educational system and the health system and the salaries for the politicians enacting these laws so in my opinion a little bit of respect and gratitude the other way might be appropriate. Of course, they keep telling us we should be grateful for the opportunity to become a citizen and we are, I’m grateful to Denmark I’ve had a good life here and I have great respect for the State of Denmark but a little bit of gratitude the other way would not go amiss when we’ve worked so hard and paid taxes for so many years, I don’t feel respected and the applicants for citizenship have been shown gross disrespect by the Danish government in this respect”.
It may take up to two years until the ceremony where Billy may or may not be awarded his citizenship, regardless of the date he is adamant he will be sticking to his principles. “I will not be giving up my application, I am going to turn up, I’m going to pass all the tests and there is an awful lot of tests to pass and I’m going to turn up at the ceremony and if they are going to refuse me my citizenship on that basis then they’ll have to do it face to face with me”.