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3 February 2003updated 24 Sep 2015 12:16pm

The beginnings of a new prejudice

By Chris Byrne

I am 29 years old, born and bred in Aldershot, Hampshire. I have lived in England all my life with no criminal record. I have qualifications as a mental health nurse and I have just finished a course on teaching English as a foreign language.

A few weeks ago, through an employment agency, I got a temporary administrative/retail job in the medical services museum at an Aldershot army base. I had worked on army bases, washing up in the kitchens, about ten years before. Then, despite the still significant IRA threat, the only identification I needed to show was my time sheet to gain access. A decade before that, I recall, the bases were not even fenced, let alone guarded.

Now – though unusually for a military base in the area there were still no armed soldiers on the gate – I was escorted from the gate to my place of work each morning.

On the second day I was given security forms to complete, including those relating to the Official Secrets Act. I had stated on the form that my mother was born in Algeria and was of French nationality (I have dual nationality myself).

The following day my boss told me that, because my mother was “Algerian” (I reiterated that she had French nationality), the Ministry of Defence security department had ordered that I could not work there until the security clearance process was complete. (My Irish republican surname was apparently not an issue.) This would take a few weeks at least. I would therefore lose my job, because the museum needed somebody to work immediately and could not keep the post vacant.

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My boss admitted that he was happy with my performance. And it was not as if I had access to warheads in my daily job, because it was a non-combatant base. Nor, pushing paper and selling thimbles and tankards in the museum, was I likely to discover many official secrets.

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It wasn’t a great job. It was difficult to get to, the wages were poor and I had to call the boss “Captain”, even though he was retired and introduced himself on the phone to other civilians outside the workplace as “Mr”. Nevertheless, I shall know in future that, asked for my mother’s place of birth, I would do better to lie.