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20 May 2004 Edition

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Why we must defeat McDowell's referendum

A press conference to launch the Campaign Against the Racist Referendum (CARR)

A press conference to launch the Campaign Against the Racist Referendum (CARR)

The significance of the forthcoming referendum lies in the fact that most people haven't even considered its implications. But this racist referendum does at least three very significant things.

Firstly, it unilaterally alters the Good Friday Agreement without consultation or agreement with the parties. That in the context of today should ring alarm bells everywhere.

Secondly it creates a category of children who, according to Article 2 of the constitution, have a birthright to be part of the nation, but who, through this referendum to change article 9, will not be entitled to nationality or citizenship. The constitution protects the rights of citizens: the constitution is not written in terms of human beings. All that is left in confusion. The referendum would leave us with two separate categories of people - children, those with rights, and those without.

And thirdly, the referendum gives the government a free hand to legislate, as they please, about which 'foreign children' will have what rights, without restraint. As the wording of the referendum says, "notwithstanding any other provision of the Constitution" — that is notwithstanding the constitutional protection of any rights.

The referendum reads: "Notwithstanding any other provision of this constitution, a person born in the island of Ireland... who does not have at the time of his or her birth at least one parent who is an Irish citizen or entitled to be an Irish citizen, is not entitled to Irish citizenship or nationality".

This fundamentally undermines and corrupts the principle of equality in the Constitution and violates the commitment to "cherish all the children of the nation equally".

Dismantling the Agreement

This referendum is the first step in dismantling, unilaterally, the most important political achievement in Ireland of perhaps the last 50 years — the Good Friday Agreement, which, at least in words, places human rights centre stage. This was what came out of 30 years of war, the potential for a constitution which would outlaw discrimination and sectarian rule, inequality: that would set the stage for the building of an Ireland of equals.

And then, almost unnoticed, the Minister of Justice, Equality and Law reform, brings in, in such a hurry that there is time to consult with anyone, a referendum proposal that would change all of that. Minister Michael McDowell is unpicking all that carefully constructed and negotiated basis which has been a lighthouse on the horizon to establish an Ireland of equals.

Just stop a minute and look at what he is doing.

First he introduces his Immigration Bill 2004 — a disgraceful piece of legislation, which he rushes through Leinster House, which happens amongst other things to introduce a category that doesn't exist in the Irish constitution, the children of non-nationals. As Aisling Reidy, director of the ICCL, told last week's press conference to launch the Campaign Against the Racist Referendum, CARR, the ICCL complained about this terminology — as establishing a category which does not exist in our law. The Minister ignored them, knowing as he did, that he intended to introduce a referendum three months on, which makes this a category.

The Minister then, at the end of March, announced the referendum, in the greatest of haste. The referendum will reverse, by a vote of all of the people of the 26 Counties, the view of a huge majority of people across this island who voted for Article 2, that "it is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish nation".

Why the referendum?

In support of this referendum Minister McDowell announced that it is because the masters of several hospitals had asked him for this. The masters the very same day on the radio denied that they asked for any such thing. They said resources were inadequate in hospitals, which as we all know is true. Minister McDowell had to backtrack.

Next he claimed that the referendum is to close up a loophole. There is no loophole. It is simply changing the very basis of the right to nationality, citizenship, a fundamental republican concept based on place of birth. not heredity.

McDowell at a stroke wants to change this core republican value, overturning the basis of citizenship that has existed in Ireland since the foundation of the state. Is that closing a loophole?

Was Minister McDowell suggesting there was a loophole through which a number of people, pregnant women, got citizenship? Emphatically no. If he was suggesting this, then it is false. The Supreme Court decided (to its shame) that the fact of a child born in Ireland did not confer rights to parents to remain here or gain citizenship.

At least twice since that Supreme Court judgement, mass deportations have taken place. People were arrested early one morning, detained with no access to lawyers, or families, or friends, and taken to the airport in the middle of the night — including children who were born here.

Lining up with the EU

Minister McDowell implied that our laws needed to be brought into line with EU laws. There is absolutely no such legal imposition on member states. As the ICCL has so forcefully pointed out, in 1993 the EU heads of state and government, including Ireland, made a declaration that laws of citizenship are the sole preserve of the member states, and national and EU citizenship are separate.

So then the Minister began to talk about citizenship tourism, the implication being that people outside of the EU were racing to get to Ireland because this would establish the right of citizenship for their children. He suggested there were figures, which he didn't have, to prove this. As it turns out, there are still no accurate figures. The best that can be found is a figure of the order of 209 births, as Des Bonass reported to last week's press conference, of children born to 'non nationals' last year.

Is that what Minister McDowell thinks is the horde of 'illegal' people at our gates, that he is so anxious to imply, are queuing to take our jobs, houses, and threaten our very livelihoods? This is a blatantly racist argument.

The referendum has absolutely no relevance to the number of people who come from outside of Europe to this country. Furthermore, if anyone opened their ears and eyes they would know with certainty that Ireland needs migrant workers, and this government has gone out of its way to bring them here, because the ratio of our live and active working age population to those who are aged citizens and due to retire is diminishing. Ireland's population does not replace itself. The present ratio of workers to retirees is better than 5:1. It will be less than 3:1 by 2031. This implies a substantially higher tax burden on taxpayers to provide services for older people.

Conspiracy of silence

But no one is discussing these things about which there is so much (inspired) confusion. Instead the PDs announce they will not be campaigning for the referendum. Conclude what you will, but one thing is sure. The PDs and the Fianna Fáil will not be taking the issues to the media, actioning the debate that so dearly needs to happen.

Nevertheless, they and the Fine Gael will be chatting away quietly at the doors on the racist ticket, where no one can challenge them for breaking the anti-racism protocol. It's a door to door whispering campaign.

Those progressive parties campaigning for votes need to remember that this referendum is also a priority. If it is not defeated, a major backward step will have been taken away from the Republic of Equals that we are working to create.


An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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