‘Opportunities created by the law may be undermined by problems in the procedure”. That in essence is the criticism levelled by the Immigration Council of Ireland against this State’s procedural and administrative regime for acquiring citizenship. The issues raised are wider, since similar problems of executive discretion, vague criteria, bureaucratic and costly procedures bedevil other parts of Irish governance. But they are especially burdensome for immigrants seeking citizenship, as this valuable report amply documents.
Ireland scores second lowest of 27 European Union member-states on a set of indicators developed to measure such problems facing immigrants. Only 13 per cent of immigrants here acquired citizenship compared to an EU average of 34 per cent. This is partly because Ireland is a relatively recent immigration society, having for long sent people the other way. But comparatively inclusive aspects of Irish law concerning access and conditions for acquiring citizenship are frustrated by heavy-handed and lengthy implementing procedures and by the absolute discretion vested at every stage in the Minister for Justice.
Such a regime facilitated immigration when it was required by an expanding economy, to the point where the foreign born proportion of the population stands now at some 12 or 13 per cent, the majority of them citizens of other EU member-states. The most pressing problems are not faced by such people, who have easier residence requirements here, but by those from elsewhere in the world. They are exposed to systematic delays and frustrating procedures when they seek citizenship. This report, based on detailed comparative research into the legal and practical position throughout the EU, spells them out. On implementing the law they face a confusing and bureaucratic documentary trail, problems arising from absolute ministerial discretion, lengthy delays and a decision-making regime with no appeal and until a recent Supreme Court judgement without criteria or explanations for outcomes.
These problems echo the even worse ones facing refugees seeking asylum in this State, condemned to live in residential accommodation on a pitiful €19.10 a week income. Together with the immigrants seeking citizenship this amounts to an inhuman regime which seems designed to deter future inward movement and to create a fortress mentality concerning access. A more sophisticated society and economy depending on immigration for many beneficial inputs deserves a better regime than this. Recent progress towards creating a more inclusive approach, including citizenship ceremonies, legal changes making for more transparency and civil society protests calling for better conditions are welcome and should be matched by demands for further procedural and administrative reform.