National day should celebrate citizenship


A day of civic engagement rather than parades might make for a better celebration of patriotism, writes Elaine Byrne.

HAPPY INDEPENDENCE Day! On July 4th, 1776, the United States Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. Nine of the declaration's signatories were of Irish origin, including the youngest signatory, 26-year-old Edward Rutledge.

On December 6th, 1921, Ireland achieved partitioned and qualified independence from Great Britain under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The subsequent Civil War did not entice Ireland to celebrate an Independence Day. Instead we commemorate St Patrick, a Welshman who brought Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century.

Thomas Jefferson, of Welsh descent, was only 31 when he drafted the Declaration of Independence. Americans will today honour his words that "all men are created equal". They will pay tribute to the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".

Two Welshmen and two distinct acknowledgments of a country's birth. Ireland's pursuit for freedom has conditioned us to look to the past. Proust would observe many madeleines within the Irish concept of memory and subconscious. The forecast of an economic recession has directed us to the 1980s and not to the possibilities of the future. The US is as much an idea as a place, which translates into the ability of achieving the future.

Maybe it's time for something different. How about a designated annual National Citizenship Day, on which Ireland will engage with herself? The doors of her national and local political institutions will open to the public, along the lines of last weekend's successful Oireachtas family day. The judges will sit in their courts and explain what they do. The Civil Service, the Garda Síochána and the Army will do likewise and remember, for example, the public service ethos of Cornelius J Gregg, the founding principles of Michael Staines and our peacekeepers' proud achievements. The President will present citizenship awards to those who have given outstanding public service to their country. The State will formally mark the remarkable achievement of peace on this island that escaped generations before us.

Our museums, theatres and other cultural institutions will facilitate free access to special events. The triumph and colour of last May's Battle of the Boyne re-enactment will be replicated for other significant historical events.

The business community, media fraternity, religious organisations and educational institutes will also contribute to National Citizenship Day.

This will be a day of focused civic engagement instead of nice festive parades. The Taoiseach or President will have a neutral space to address the nation on a vision of values such as tírghrá or patriotism.

The US president's annual message is the State of the Union Address while Queen Elizabeth's speech is broadcast each Christmas. Our equivalent are the commemorations at Arbour Hill, Béal na mBláth, Bodenstown and others. Citizenship Day acknowledges the contribution of all our patriots without party political undertones.

On Citizenship Day, we would stage naturalisation ceremonies to welcome new Irish citizens. At present, immigrants who are successful in their application for citizenship are simply required to stand in open court and make a declaration to Article Nine of the Constitution: "Fidelity to the nation and loyalty to the State are fundamental political duties of all citizens." Nationalisation ceremonies in the US are moving occasions where the personal stories of the meaning of citizenship are published in local newspapers.

The three specific objectives of the US office of citizenship within the department of homeland security provides a template for our own proposed Citizenship Day: (1) Enhance information and educational opportunities to support integration and participation in civic culture; (2) Promote education and training on citizenship rights, privileges, and responsibilities; (3) Infuse citizenship-related ceremonies and events with greater meaning and stature.

On this day we will ask ourselves what it means to be Irish and what our message to the world should be. If patriotism is the commitment to the values of a country, it should be possible to somewhat define those values.

Maybe the grandiose notion of a National Citizenship Day is a bit ambitious. But do one thing before you dismiss it out of hand. Ask yourself what patriotism means and see how long it takes to answer that question.

Irish public life has been demoralised in the last 10 years by challenges to public trust. It is time to rebuild civic confidence.

National Citizenship Day will strive to not only speak of patriotism but to promote its practice. We will remember the heritage of St Patrick and Jefferson by the old Welsh saying: To every privilege is attached a duty ( Ymhob braint y mae dyletswydd).Let us communally celebrate and collectively share the responsibility of citizenship once a year.