Referendum to be held to restrict citizenship rights

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The Government is preparing to hold a constitutional referendum in June to remove the automatic right to Irish citizenship from the Irish-born children of non-nationals. Arthur Beesley, Political Reporter, reports.

Voters will be asked to empower the Government to restrict citizenship rights in what the Minister for Justice, Mr McDowell, described last night as a measure to remove an incentive for foreign mothers to give birth in Irish hospitals.

While Labour immediately claimed the move was calculated to "encourage racist tendencies" during the June elections, Fine Gael reserved its position.

The move comes after several years of Government concern over the growing number of foreign women presenting late in their pregnancies to give birth in Ireland, and after the masters of the four Dublin maternity hospitals asked the Minister to deal with the problem.

Last night, however, one of the doctors expressed concern that he and his colleagues have been blamed for the decision to hold a referendum. Dr Seán Daly, master of the Coombe, asked: "Are we the scapegoats?"

The referendum decision follows a promise in the Programme for Government to consider constitutional measures to tighten up the Irish citizenship regime.

Mr McDowell characterised the initiative as an effort to prevent "citizenship tourism".

He said the Republic was the only EU member to grant an automatic citizenship right and, therefore, an EU passport.

He had not yet devised a wording for the proposed constitutional change, but said it would be simple and would be followed by legislation, the heads of which he would set out when publishing the wording of the amendment.

He said he would consult with the Opposition parties, but "they do not have a veto".

The decision to proceed with a referendum comes a fortnight after the Government decided to remove the automatic right to social welfare benefits for citizens of other EU states.

Mr McDowell said his proposals would include separate legislation to prevent the reintroduction of another passports-for-investments scheme.

Legislation that would follow the constitutional amendment would require one non-national parent of an Irish-born child to be legally resident in Ireland for between three and five years for the child to qualify for citizenship.

While the proposal will not change Article 2 of the Constitution, which was extended under the Belfast Agreement to entitle children born in Northern Ireland to Irish citizenship, he said the Government feared this had been abused.

The amendment would instead change Article 9, which qualifies the citizenship rights set out in Article 2. It would allow the Government to set out in legislation the citizenship rights of children born in Ireland to non-nationals.

Mr McDowell said children born in Northern Ireland to parents entitled to Irish citizenship, but who had not exercised that entitlement, would still have an automatic right to Irish citizenship.

The Labour leader, Mr Pat Rabbitte, said the referendum proposal was "opportunistic".

"These difficulties require to be addressed, but not in the context of national elections."

Mr Rabbitte said the Taoiseach had said in 1998 that "no legislation will be proposed by this Government to the Oireachtas which imposes restrictions on the entitlement to Irish nationality and citizenship of persons born in Ireland".

The official spokesman for the Fine Gael leader, Mr Enda Kenny, would only say last night that the Government proposal required careful consideration.

Mr McDowell was accused by the Sinn Féin justice spokesman, Mr Aengus Ó Snodaigh, of "quite deliberately setting about making race an election issue". This was dangerously irresponsible.

Responding, Mr McDowell's spokesman said no decision had yet been made on the timing of the referendum. However, the Minister said earlier that the Government had enough time to clear legislation through the Dáil by May 12th to allow a referendum on June 11th.

He said the Irish electorate could distinguish between the referendum and election issues.

Background; Doctors reject 'scapegoat' role; Passport scheme for investors to be outlawed; page 8

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