1 April 2004 Edition

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Racist referendum will restrict citizenship rights

It has recently transpired that the 26-County Government plans to hold a referendum in June, aiming to remove the automatic right to Irish citizenship from the Irish-born children of non-nationals. This is a massively contentious issue. The Irish people decided on what constituted Irish nationality during the referendum changing Article 2 of the 1937 Constitution as part of the Good Friday Agreement. This stated: "It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland... to be part of the Irish nation." Over 90% of the electorate supported this amendment. The aim behind this was to preserve the rights of those born in the Six Counties to be Irish citizens if they wished and its integration into Bunreacht na hÉireann was a fundamental component of the peace process. The proposed referendum is to amend Article 9, which states: "The future acquisition and loss of Irish nationality and citizenship shall be determined in accordance with the law." Under the current Constitution, citizenship cannot be removed from Irish-born citizens, however it can be removed from those who qualify under law. So if this referendum is passed a situation will arise where, even if you are born in Ireland, your citizenship can be removed.

It has to be acknowledged that the facet of Irish citizenship law that grants an entitlement of citizenship to all people born on the island, is one that is unique within the European Union. Most other counties have laws and edicts where nationality is acquired by descent from an existing citizen. The place of birth is normally largely inconsequent in these other countries. But this is not most other countries. In January 2003, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that the non-national parents of such children "born in the island of Ireland" do not have the right to live in the country based on their child's citizenship in the Lobe case. Following this ruling, it allowed Minister McDowell to deport whole families, which included infant Irish citizens where it was shown that their asylum application had failed or they had been found to be living here illegally. From this, it is logical to conclude that the fact that your place of birth is Ireland doesn't confer an automatic right of citizenship anyway. The rights of Irish children born of non-national parents have already been restricted, so why the referendum? Why the attack on civil liberties?

Well, the answer is easy of course: the upcoming local and EU elections. The Fianna Fáil/PD government has underfunded hospitals and maternity wings for years. Blame it on the immigrants. Turn it in to an argument on race. Divert attention away from the lack of resources made available for the health sector. Turn the four Masters of the major maternity hospitals into convenient scapegoats and there you have it, your election is in the bag.

The Minister has justified the need for this referendum through vague assertions. In one case, he said there was a "very high percentage" of (non-national) women appearing at "one particular hospital" in the later stages of pregnancy. This is hardly concrete evidence. We are given no real figures here and aren't even told where this is going on.

Originally, it was stated that the Masters of the Dublin maternity hospitals had gone to the minister and asked him to "do something" about the levels of non-national babies being delivered within their institutions. Wouldn't the answer be to allocate more funding to these hospitals rather than unnecessarily alter the citizenship laws even further? The Minister's argument justifying this referendum is a dubious one. It becomes even more suspicious when Dr Seán Daly, Master of the Coombe, was quoted as asking: "Are we the scapegoats?"

Further to this, the Minister said he would "consult the opposition parties but they do not have a veto". He should have just come out and said what he really meant: "Listen lads, I'm going to ask your opinion on this but it doesn't really matter what you think because I've made up my mind and this referendum is going ahead anyway." The wording of this referendum must be cleared by 12 May so the minister has anticipated any objection by leaving himself with just enough time to get a referendum sorted out but not enough time for the Oireachtas All-Party Committee on the Constitution to be consulted.

The fact that non-national expectant mothers are being demonised in this manner is inherently dangerous. It serves further the racist and xenophobic attitudes being cultivated within Irish society. The colour of one group's skin is subtly being blamed for the lack of resources in Irish hospitals.

Sinn Féin Dáil Justice spokesperson Aengus Ó Snodaigh has accused McDowell of "quite deliberately setting about making race an election issue". This referendum will do nothing but foster and encourage racist tendencies that are already here. On numerous radio shows, callers have blamed certain ethnic minorities for the poor social welfare system and housing crisis.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is the Good Friday Agreement. The minister is completely committed to restricting citizenship even further without sparing a thought for the effect it will have on the GFA and the ongoing peace process. The people most affected by the agreement are those resident in the Six Counties and not once have they been consulted on the proposed change. What would the effect be for the people born in the Six Counties to parents who are not Irish citizens? These parents would be classed as 'non-nationals' for the purpose of the impending legislation. Would they have to fulfill some kind of obscure residency requirement also? Even if this was clarified, it still poses the question of whether this 'residency requirement' could be fulfilled within the 'Republic' only or in the Six Counties also.

All of these questions remain unanswered and seem to have conveniently slipped the minister's mind. It is ironic that his full title is 'Minister for Justice, Equality, and Law Reform'. Maybe he has forgotten that as well. The implications for the GFA are of grave consequence for the Government and it is therefore imperative that this issue is given time to be addressed by the Opposition parties.

After the referendum does take place (and there is no doubt that it will), if it is defeated will we, the Irish citizens, be asked to vote again if we get the answer wrong like we did in the first Nice Treaty vote? The actions of this government beggar belief. The only way in which rights to Irish citizenship will be protected is if well-thought out policy proposals are put forward where all consequences are taken into account.

The answer does not lie in marginalising one particularly vulnerable sector of Irish society to cover the inadequacy of the current government. If this referendum (which is in substance on equality) is not defeated, it is horrifying to think what will be restricted next based on the whim of Minister McDowell. Justice? Law reform? Freedom of expression? Or will it just be plain old democracy itself?

is was clarified, it still poses the question of whether this 'residency requirement' could be fulfilled within the 'Republic' only or in the Six Counties also.

All of these questions remain unanswered and seem to have conveniently slipped the minister's mind. It is ironic that his full title is 'Minister for Justice, Equality, and Law Reform'. Maybe he has forgotten that as well. The implications for the GFA are of grave consequence for the Government and it is therefore imperative that this issue is given time to be addressed by the Opposition parties.

After the referendum does take place (and there is no doubt that it will), if it is defeated will we, the Irish citizens, be asked to vote again if we get the answer wrong like we did in the first Nice Treaty vote? The actions of this government beggar belief. The only way in which rights to Irish citizenship will be protected is if well-thought out policy proposals are put forward where all consequences are taken into account.

The answer does not lie in marginalising one particularly vulnerable sector of Irish society to cover the inadequacy of the current government. If this referendum (which is in substance on equality) is not defeated, it is horrifying to think what will be restricted next based on the whim of Minister McDowell. Justice? Law reform? Freedom of expression? Or will it just be plain old democracy itself?


An Phoblacht
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Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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