We need a new definition of what it means to be Irish

Notion of citizenship should be less blood-based than our current model

The Brexit process has given Ireland many new dynamic and talented citizens. Nick Mazzei writing in The Irish Times last weekend gave a touching account of his distress at the self-destructive and inward-looking turn taken by the UK in Brexit.

He describes how this set him on a search for his Irish granny’s documents that ultimately resulted in the grant of Irish citizenship. Rightly, he does not want this citizenship to be merely a flag of convenience and sets out his commitment to live in accordance with Irish identity, which for him is based on social liberalism and internationalism.

He seems like an open-minded model citizen who would be useful to any country yet his account of his journey to Irish citizenship does raise questions that deserve debate.

Though Ireland is attractive to those of liberal and internationalist values, the laws they use to claim their citizenship do not reflect those values at all. They are very racialised, allowing people to become citizens because of a tenuous, blood-based connection which give unqualified access to citizenship to those with an Irish grandparent but are much more restrictive towards those whose connection comes from marrying an Irish person or living here.


As I share the commitment to liberal values that motivated Mazzei to seek Irish citizenship, I am pleased that the current political majority in Ireland is liberal and pro-EU. However, I think it would be a mistake to define Irish identity in terms of those values.

National identity

Commitment to basic liberal values is part of the national identity of many countries. The German theorist Jürgen Habermas argued for “constitutional patriotism” based on commitment to liberal values rather than blood. But as the liberal nationalist political theorist David Miller has pointed out there are no real-world examples of countries whose national identity is purely based on shared values. Sustainable political communities need more than that.

Irish citizenship is not open to everyone in the world who believes in gay marriage or international co-operation.

National identity and citizenship involve a degree of, for better or worse, commitment. If you are only Irish because Ireland is liberal would you give up the citizenship if Ireland became more conservative again?

Secularisation, prosperity and liberalism are so recently established in Ireland that we have not yet had time for a significant backlash

Furthermore, if Irish identity is defined in terms of being socially liberal and internationalist, where does this leave the many people in Ireland who remain socially conservative or sceptical of internationalisation? Their views are not mine but they are perfectly respectable and should not be made to feel that they are un-Irish.

Liberal values

As a gay person who grew up in Dublin in the 1990s, I can also confirm that the embrace of liberal values in Ireland is very recent. The writer Edward Luce (himself an impeccable liberal) has written of “the incorrigible tendency to present the latest shift in liberal thinking as self-evident truth” or as part of the forward march of some inevitable historical process.

When I was studying comparative politics 20 years ago, Europe was in thrall to Francis Fukuyama’s idea that we had reached the end of history and that liberal democratic capitalism was the only game in town. Twenty years later, across Europe from Brexit, to Marine Le Pen to Matteo Salvini in Italy, it is clear that history has not ended and illiberal forces are on the rise.

Ireland experienced key developments that shaped western Europe such as prosperity, secularisation and liberalism on sex and sexuality, a couple of decades later than most of western Europe.

Secularisation, prosperity and liberalism are so recently established in Ireland that we have not yet had time for a significant backlash. But we should be wary of thinking that this means that we have reached a kind of Irish end of history.

Ireland needs a notion of citizenship that is less blood-based than our current model but also one that has a sufficient element of better or worse commitment.

Basic liberal values may be a part of that but to regard Irish citizenship as being defined by social liberalism and internationalism is not only unfair to social conservatives and sceptics of international co-operation. It makes the citizenship we need to sustain our Republic dependent on what may be temporary political trends.

Ronan McCrea is professor of constitutional and European law at University College London