What’s an Irish citizen?

By | May 30, 2005

If Brits are Irish I need a holiday

When I had to order heating oil last week I knew the time had come to get out of Ireland. I screeched at my husband and soon he had the family booked on a charter to Majorca. Mollified, I began the bureaucratic and logistical battle to get the baby’s passport sorted.

First he was held aloft in a booth for a startled photo. I rang the Department of Social and Family Affairs for his PPS number. We found a garda to witness our mutual consent. I queued for the birth certificate, wrote the cheque, sent the application off, sat back and waited. Then the phone rang. On a Saturday. A very nice lady from the Passport Office said she was terribly sorry but my son had not established his entitlement to Irish citizenship.

I was perplexed. Of course he was Irish, he was born here. Wasn’t that enough? Not any more. Since January 1 the citizenship referendum we approved last June has taken effect. It means that people born in Ireland aren’t automatically Irish anymore. Now you have to establish that you’re Irish through your parents.

“But I thought that was only for foreigners,” I told the lady. “That’s what everyone thought,” she agreed. “No one realised it would affect Irish babies too.”

“Just the black ones,” I grimly offered.

So I was required to send in my own birth certificate to establish that I was Irish and therefore my son was Irish too.

Once I got over the astonishment, I re-examined the application form, concerned that my efficient administration system had broken down. I need not have worried. While the law has changed dramatically, the forms have not. Nowhere on the very detailed application does it acknowledge the shift in Irish citizenship. A call to the Department of Foreign Affairs elicited the response that the new forms are at the printers and not due for a few months. Sounds like a poor service. In the meantime, the passport people have to spend weekends asking people to prove that their new children are Irish.

I shared my surprise with friends at a barbecue. As the rain came down, we huddled inside in front of a fire. An English couple living in Dublin for nearly 15 years sent off a passport application for their child, knowing there would be an issue, but at a loss as to how to resolve it given the absence of any reference on the form to the new law. They presumed they would need to provide proof of residency.

Duly, they received the phone call from the passport office. But it turns out their son is entitled to Irish citizenship . . . because they are British. Apparently, if one parent is British – irrespective of whether they are from Norwich or Northern Ireland – the child is entitled to Irish citizenship. If a parent is from any other EU country, the residency requirements kicks in.

We were amazed. Amid the xenophobic justification for last year’s referendum there had been a lot of hysteria about
closing the floodgates to the Nigerians, Romanians and Mrs Chen. No one said anything about opening floodgates to the British.

The text of the article inserted into the constitution says that “a person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, who does not have, at the time of the birth of that person, at least one parent who is an Irish citizen or entitled to be an Irish citizen, is not entitled to Irish citizenship or nationality, unless provided for by law”.

You’ll note it doesn’t say anything about the children of our nearest neighbours getting citizenship. Apparently those five words at the end “unless provided for by law” are the key. In December the law, being the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 2004, was enacted and that gave entitlement to Irish citizenship to a person born on the island of Ireland to parents at least one of whom is a British citizen. Given the wording of the referendum, the law could have granted citizenship to a child who had at least one parent from Mars and we couldn’t have done anything about it.

For a country determined to restrict Irish citizenship to ourselves and our oppressed nationalist brethren on the Falls Road, it is a surprising consequence of the referendum. The argument in favour of a Yes vote was that, theoretically, millions of asylum seekers could land on our shores, bear children, and collect passports. The population of the UK is now 60m, but hark!

Where are the howls of outrage that they will start beating down the doors of Holles St in the middle of the night demanding that their baby’s first breath be an Irish one? No one wants to be caught on a hijacked plane with either an American or British passport – ample incentive for fearful Brits to nip over on a Ryanair flight and have a baby here.

Yet again, it seems, we amended the constitution without a clue what the consequences would be. The 1983 anti-abortion wording gave a constitutional right to an abortion, and two subsequent referendums later it still stands. The 1998 Good Friday agreement provided a constitutional right to citizenship to anyone born in the 32 counties, which the 2004 referendum was supposed to nullify. It is conceivable that we will find ourselves going to the polls again to redefine our citizenship.

Maybe it’ll be third time lucky.

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