The citizenship referendum

 

Tomorrow voters are being asked to decide not only on their representatives in the European Parliament and on local councils, but also to change the Constitution. What is an Irish citizen? The 27th Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 2004 asks voters to remove the automatic entitlement of all those born in Ireland to citizenship at birth.This clause was inserted into the Constitution as part of the Belfast Agreement six years ago. It was known then that it could apply to those born to non-Irish parents. Yet, it was proposed regardless and overwhelmingly endorsed by the electorate.

The Government is now proposing to limit citizenship to those who have at least one parent who has been lawfully resident in the State for three of the last four years. It has argued that we are the only EU state with an automatic right to citizenship at birth and that this is open to abuse, as demonstrated by the Chen case.

This is true in theory. As voters, however, we do not know the extent of the abuse. Various figures were bandied about. The Masters of the Dublin maternity hospitals were invoked to warn of a pending crisis. But when the figures were finally teased out, it emerged that less than 200 non-national women turned up in the National Maternity Hospital in the late stages of pregnancy in one year.

The parties to the Belfast Agreement, apart from the British government, were not consulted about this proposal to change the Constitution. The SDLP leader, Mr Mark Durkan, received a reply to his letter outlining his concerns about the proposal's implications only yesterday. He is opposed to the amendment.

Those opposing the amendment have warned that it could lead to inequality in the treatment of children born here. They have also warned of the possibility of litigation seeking to clarify the entitlement to citizenship. They might be wrong. They might be right. We do not know what the long-term effects will be.

There was no Green Paper outlining the need for a rewriting of this solemn change made to our Constitution in 1998. There was no consultation with appropriate bodies like the Human Rights Commission. Had there been consultation with the Opposition parties in the Dáil and the Northern parties, followed by a full and informed public discussion, there is every possibility that there could have been all-party agreement on a solution to the problem of citizen-tourism. It might or might not have entailed a constitutional amendment.

Instead the Government decided that there was great urgency in effecting this change this year. Previous experience of rushed referendums, notably where the "pro-life" amendment was inserted into the Constitution, has not been happy, and has led to endless further referendums seeking to clarify the situation.The case has not been proven. There is nothing to be lost by postponing this decision and allowing a thorough discussion to take place. This can only be achieved by a No vote.