Richard Pine: I lived in Ireland for 45 years. Why can’t I get citizenship?

There is something peculiarly bizarre – Beckettian even – in realising that one is not sufficiently ‘Irish’ to be Irish

Richard Pine in Greece

Richard Pine in Greece

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Almost 50 years ago, the Englishman Hilton Edwards (co-founder, with Micheál mac Liammóir, of the Dublin Gate Theatre) advised me not to change my British passport for an Irish one. “Stay what you are. Change your passport and Irish people will accuse you of trying to ‘go native’.” It seemed good advice at the time. Britain and Ireland were about to join the then European Economic Community. The EU was 20 years into the future. Britain was reasonably well governed, between Conservative Edward Heath and Labour Harold Wilson.

Today, all that has changed. Britain is governed, if that is the appropriate term, by someone whom John le Carré describes as “that f****ng Etonian narcissistic elitist without a decent conviction in his body bar his own advancement”. Except he didn’t use asterisks. The prime minister of the country of which I am a citizen has been proved a cheat in his career as a journalist, a deceiver of the public during the referendum campaign, a liar in his attempt to override parliament, incompetent to deal with Covid-19 and utterly arrogant in defending Dominic Cummings. I don’t want to be a citizen of Johnson’s Britain.

What do I want instead? I want to be an Irish citizen, yet I am, apparently, ineligible because I live abroad – in Greece. How Irish must you be to be Irish? If I had had an Irish granny, it would not matter if I lived in the middle of the Gobi desert and had never even heard of Ireland. I would be eligible for Irish citizenship. As it is, I didn’t, and I’m not.

My great-grandfather was an Irish orphan – abandoned by a pregnant lace-maker who fled Limerick for another lace-making centre, Coggeshall in Essex, in the 1850s. His birth was never registered, so, as far as Irishness is concerned, he never existed – like me.

I left the UK in 1967 and moved to Ireland. Despite going to school a stone’s throw from where Boris Johnson now smirks with impunity, I retain very little sense of “Englishness”. On my very brief visits to England in the past 53 years (the last was in 1997), I can hardly recognise the country I left.

I am also, in effect, stateless. If belonging to a country is a state of mind, then I am predominantly Irish. Many of my books, such as my studies of Brian Friel, Oscar Wilde and Brendan Kennelly, or my history of “2RN”, the fledgling Irish radio service, are exclusively about Ireland and Irishness. I spent 25 years in the national broadcasting service, nurturing today’s National Symphony Orchestra and looking after RTÉ’s corporate literature. When in 1977 I took the RTÉ Singers to give a concert in London I pointed out where I went to school. “You mean you are English?” they asked with obvious disappointment. “We rather hoped you were Ascendancy.” Dream on.

For the past 48 years I have been married to an Irish citizen, I am the father of two Irish citizens, the grandfather of another, and I pay Irish tax. But this is not enough. To qualify, one must have been resident in Ireland for five of the past eight years. Under present regulations if I lived in Ireland, there would be no restriction. But in that case I would not be able to do my job. It’s a “Catch-22” situation. So here I am, as Denis Staunton once said, on the periphery of the periphery in every sense, a Brit telling the Irish about the Greeks.

I am between a rock and a hard place. A citizen of a country rapidly dying by suicide because its prime minister is a smirking perjurer, and inadmissible to a country where I made my home for 40 years and which I still carry in my heart. Writing articles for this newspaper for (believe it or not) the past 46 years may not make me Irish or qualify me for an Irish passport, but, like every other aspect of my life in and about Ireland, it has imbued me with a sense of destiny, a sense of purpose and, despite the regulations, a sense of belonging. There is something peculiarly bizarre – Beckettian even – in realising that one is not sufficiently “Irish” to be Irish.

Even under the present regulations, there are anomalies: Stephanie McCorkell’s application for Irish citizenship was denied after 45 years’ residence in Ireland (and marriage to an Irish citizen), due to a technicality: she had been out of Ireland for one week longer than the permitted six weeks before submitting her application. She was later successful as the law, in Dickensian terms, had been shown to be an ass. As she said at the time, “I felt as if I have no worth in this country.” I know how she felt.

So the crux of the matter is: what makes a person “Irish”? Is it a matter of DNA or a state of mind? A tenuous connection or a profound relationship? A granny from Crossmaglen or a deep commitment to Irish topics, emotions, sensations and ambitions? Maybe the time has come, especially in the context of Brexit and the changing face of the EU, for new criteria which take into account long-term periods of residency and, rather more importantly, a proven track-record of “being there” – in mind if not in body.

Richard Pine is based in Corfu and writes for The Irish Times on Greece

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