In the autumn, we will be asked in a referendum to give all Irish citizens living outside of the Republic the right to vote in future presidential elections. I imagine many people will instinctively agree that this is a good idea and as a parent of emigrants, I am one of them. There is, however, a very big grey pachyderm bellowing in the middle of this particular room. We seem not to want either to see it or to hear it. It is the definition of that nice phrase, “Irish citizens”. Fifteen years ago, we did something really terrible to it. What we did is relevant not just to the forthcoming referendum, but to the moral high ground Ireland has been occupying all through the Brexit crisis – our unwavering support for the Belfast Agreement of 1998.
On June 11th, 2004, we went to the polls for local and European elections but also to vote in a constitutional referendum on citizenship. This referendum was a disgrace to Irish democracy. It was cooked up by the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats government on the basis of scare stories about foreign women coming to Ireland to have their babies purely so that those children could then claim Irish citizenship. These stories were, as the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) put it at the time, "vague or anecdotal in nature". The government did not commission a study to determine the facts so that voters could make an informed decision. It refused to refer the proposal to amend the Constitution to either the all-party Oireachtas committee on the Constitution or the IHRC, so there was no formal scrutiny before the referendum was called.
Unsurprisingly, an initial poll done for the referendum commission found that just 13 per cent of potential voters claimed to have a good understanding of what was a stake and 26 per cent claimed to have no understanding at all.
The whole thing was rushed through. The IHRC wrote in April to the minister who was driving the process, Michael McDowell, complaining of “the short timeframe that was available for consideration of the matter, the potential impact of the referendum on race relations and the potential impact of the proposed constitutional changes on the Belfast Agreement”.
The referendum commission, which had the statutory obligation to provide information, did not meet until April 28th and did not finalise its (rather skimpy) information booklet until May 20th. The delivery of copies to An Post depots was not completed until May 31st – actual delivery to homes may have been days later.
The commission formally complained that “on this occasion it was not permitted ample time to run a fully comprehensive information campaign . . . The commission is of the view that democracy is not well served by allowing a minimal amount of time for the electorate to consider proposals to amend the Constitution.”
Yet this referendum effectively amended not just the Constitution but also the Belfast Agreement. As part of the agreement, we had changed article 2 to say: “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.” The big word here is “birthright” – being born on the island gave you a right to citizenship. But, driven by untested anecdote and a desire to exploit panic in the elections held on the same day, the government pushed through a unilateral weakening of this provision. The 2004 amendment says that “a person born in the island of Ireland” does not in fact have the right to citizenship unless he or she has at least one parent who was an Irish citizen at the time of the birth.
Irish citizenship has been rendered rather absurd
Even if there was a significant problem of so-called “birth tourism”, this was using a wrecking ball to open a jam jar. And in our current context, it has two effects. One is that it leaves a large crack of hypocrisy in our Brexit-related insistence that the Belfast Agreement is sacrosanct. As the DUP gleefully pointed out in 2004, we amended it unilaterally, limiting a right to citizenship that is one of its core provisions. The right of the Northern Ireland Assembly to “review material changes to the agreement or relevant legislation” was completely ignored.
The other is that Irish citizenship has been rendered rather absurd. If you have never set foot on the island, you are entitled to be an Irish citizen so long as one of your parents was an Irish citizen – even if he or she had also never set foot in Ireland. If one of your grandparents is an Irish citizen who was born in Ireland, but neither of your parents was born in Ireland, you may become an Irish citizen. But if you were actually born here to parents who are not Irish citizens, you have no automatic right to Irish citizenship.
This is shabby and shameful. If we are going to go to the polls in October while congratulating ourselves on our adherence to the Belfast Agreement and the generosity of our idea of citizenship, we need to have two referendums, one on voting rights, the other to scrub this blot from the Constitution. Repeal the 27th.