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Una Mullally: Brexit shows up our nonsensical approach to Irish citizenship

Easy access to Irish passports remains off limits to some sectors of our society

‘One of the reoccurring characters in the Brexit soap opera is the most widely used document of Irish citizenship, the Irish passport.’ File photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

One of the reoccurring characters in the Brexit soap opera is the most widely used document of Irish citizenship, the Irish passport. The applications are continuing apace. It's a story that encapsulates and evokes some of our favourite national emotional pastimes: a healthy dose of schadenfreude, the treasured acceptability of xenophobia towards English people, and a sense of pride in Ireland having an object of officialdom that other people covet – a rare occurrence. The pursuit of an Irish passport is now a punchline in the tragic joke that is Brexit.

The number of Irish passport applications from Britain and Northern Ireland in the first eight months of 2019 – 85,517 – has already exceeded the total number of applications in 2018, which stood at 79,513. In 2014, 5,672 people in Britain applied for an Irish passport. In 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum, that figure more than tripled to 18,263. The following year, it jumped to 31,675, then up again last year to 39,287, and so far this year, the number stands at 36,274 and rising. The rise in applications from the North is even larger. In 2014, the number of applications stood at 18,067. In 2016, it jumped to just under 30,000, then just over 40,000 in 2017, and this year it will reach over 50,000.

There is no “sentiment” part of the Irish passport application. An emotional attachment to Ireland, a feeling of Irishness, or even the fact that you may have never even visited Ireland don’t really matter. It’s just as well. The creepiness that seeps into citizenship processes masquerading as “integration” is often about dominance, and the pursuit of assimilation can punish difference.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has appealed to people to renew passports online.

In the Irish passport qualification process, the lines are drawn. If you were born outside the island of Ireland, but one or both of your parents was an Irish citizen who was born on the island of Ireland, you are entitled to Irish citizenship. If one of your parents was not born on the island of Ireland but was an Irish citizen at the time of your birth, you can become an Irish citizen through foreign birth registration. You are also entitled to an Irish passport if you have Irish-born grandparents. The ties that bind people to Irish citizenship are loose but outlined.


Greater case

It’s interesting how loosely we allow for Irishness to be assumed by certain people, and how restricted it is for others who potentially have a greater case for a right to citizenship – in a matter of opinion, if not legally. The citizenship referendum of 2004 limited the constitutional right to Irish citizenship by removing the right to citizenship by birth, meaning that people born in Ireland were no longer automatically entitled to citizenship of the State. It remains one of the ugliest, least charitable events in recent Irish history.

Irish passports are available to some who may have little interest in contributing to Irish society

One wonders what it says about who “gets” to be an Irish citizen, hold an Irish passport, and benefit from all of the rights that flow from that, when it takes a matter of weeks or months to process an Irish passport for lifelong citizens of another country on the basis of a grandmother or grandfather being Irish, yet people born here, or raised here, who go to school here, and who are members of communities here, who have Irish accents, Irish lives, and even speak Irish, are positioned outside of that privilege, and are denied the opportunity to affirm their “Irishness”.

The comedian and writer Stewart Lee’s now decade-old blistering and prophetic takedown of Ukip’s attitude didn’t just swing a wrecking ball through the arguments English nationalism leans on, it also undermined the arbitrary pickiness of who gets to move where and how smoothly: “Neolithic people. Coming over here with their pictograms, and their primitive wheat farming innovations, and their astrological stone circle temples with all the rocks aligned with the movements of the planets. What’s wrong with just worshipping a tree?”

Arbitrary decisions

Who benefits from the administration of citizenship, and who is punished or sidelined by it? And why? Are children raised in this country, for example, not entitled to be a part of it? Meanwhile, the case of Emma DeSouza highlights how nonsensically arbitrary decisions on citizenship and identity are, allowing for none of the complexity of sense of place or belonging.

How can we say to children who have languished in direct provision for years, for example, all the while attending school, making friends, and living here, that they are less entitled to Irish citizenship than a young Londoner who has discovered their Irish ancestry is a way to circumnavigate some of the difficulties Britain leaving the European Union poses?

I have absolutely no problem with British citizens becoming Irish ones. Having Irish ancestry can create a massive attachment to this country, or none at all, and having an Irish granny is not necessarily a lived experience – it’s basically a fluke. Isn’t it odd that Irish citizenship and passports are available to some who may have little interest in contributing to Irish society – which is fine, by the way – yet for many asylum seekers desperate to make a life here, the same administrative ease is off limits? Perhaps Irishness is ideological after all.